A theory of political behavior (pt.2: evolutionary logic of identity)

Picking up where I left off in part 1, the next axiom: identity serves an evolved, group-benefiting function. I am well aware that examining an evolutionary framework to explain behavior is something that not everyone is comfortable with. Indeed, it has provoked pushback from some of my cultural studies friends and advisors (but encouragement from others). After much deliberation, I decided to keep the evolutionary lens as an explicit piece of my theoretical framework. (For more background philosophical justification, see my working philosophy of social science.)

I believe that group-oriented behavior is built upon the scaffolding of evolved group-oriented instincts. We may prefer to think of our life choices as self-aware, rational choices. But the prefrontal cortex—the region attributed to the capacity for rational thought—is a new kid on the block, in the span of evolutionary time. A relatively small portion of our brain activity involves conscious rational thought, and that part is not divorced from primal and preconscious emotions and instincts. Our orientation as individuals toward the groups we are situated within certainly has conscious and rational aspects, but, like most of our behavior, it is predominantly primal and preconscious — similar to how bees do not consciously decide to do this dance or that dance to indicate to other bees where to find the pollen. Rather, these dances, and the ability to instinctively read (i.e. react to) the meaning of the dances, are the behaviors that served the group best and therefore survived. In a social species, the behaviors that best serve the group tend to be the behaviors that survive (and therefore reproduce) over generations.

I would, however, gladly skip the evolutionary logic—because of all the trouble—if I thought it extraneous. I believe it adds an important question to an inquiry of human behavior. The question is: for what benefit?. Looking at identity through an evolutionary lens, we might ask, “What does identity accomplish?” Why did this phenomenon—this behavior—survive and develop? What purposes does (or did) it serve? What drives us to invest so much energy into its construction?

Why, from an evolutionary perspective, might people be inclined to signal belonging to a group?

Evolutionist David Sloan Wilson suggests that “…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on. Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger [my emphasis].” (Wilson 2005). Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá make a similar point (in Sex at Dawn): “If you ever doubt that human beings are, beyond everything, social animals, consider that short of outright execution or physical torture, the worst punishment in any society’s arsenal has always been exile.”

Fear of being abandoned by the groups we identify with may be hard-wired and adaptive. Our ancient ancestors likely survived in part because they liked, and were liked by, others in their groups. Those who wandered off alone too far, as well as those who got on the bad side of too many fellow group members, probably would not have fared as well evolutionarily. It makes evolutionary sense that we would want to move toward the center of the group, because those who developed this tendency would have a leg up on those who did not. David Sloan Wilson and other evolutionists argue that this kind of selection may have helped our predecessors to evolve into a more social and cooperative species.

I hypothesize that such an evolutionary journey likely equips human beings with a predisposition to try to get on the good side of the groups we are part of. We want to feel safe in the center of the group, not threatened on the margins. Thus, we constantly signal our identity and belonging with the groups we are part of.

This suggests that our group-oriented behavior, including our signaling and identity construction, is rooted way below consciousness. I am not suggesting that we never consciously think about serving the groups we are part of, but I am hypothesizing that group-oriented instinctive behavior is not dependent upon conscious thought. This has big implications for political behavior. According to basic evolutionary theory (and common observation), unconscious adaptive behaviors are triggered in plants and animals through specific sensory signals. A Venus Flytrap snaps shut when an insect brushes against one of its hairs. A female grizzly attacks any animal that crosses between her and her cub. As much as we may not like to admit it, the larger part of human motion flows in this realm of highly evolved unconscious responses to external stimuli. A key thing to grasp here—which the advertising industry has learned very well over the past century—is that preconscious primal mechanisms can often be triggered to manipulate people. Is it possible to trigger group-oriented instincts and channel them into the service of a religion, a nation, a sports team, a labor union, a company, a product, a cause, or an angry mob? I believe it happens all the time. And it behooves us to understand the processes.

Consider how the public messaging of social justice campaigns might benefit from exploring and applying these concepts. Understanding how central group identity is to human motivation, we may want to focus our message framing on defining the parameters, interests, and narrative of “the group”; claiming and contesting symbols that are meaningful to the group; positively projecting ourselves and our allies as protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and inoculating against our opposition (e.g. painting a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group). For further exploration of how this framework plays out, with immigration as the example issue, see Immigration: anatomy of a progressive narrative.

Read Part 3 here.

2 responses to “A theory of political behavior (pt.2: evolutionary logic of identity)”

  1. JMS, you say, “…positively projecting ourselves and our allies as protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and inoculating against our opposition..” is a vital part of building our movement. I agree!

    This is something the progressive green/left has done very poorly in the “developed” countries and anti-systemic movements in the Global South have been really struggling with, especially since socialist, revolutionary nationalism has been eclipsed by religious fundamentalism as the dominant anti-empire ideology in many parts of the Third World.

    The notable success of La Via Campesina has been partially the product of successfully accomplishing this critical task of positive self-definition. Here’s what they say about themselves:

    “La Via Campesina is the international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. It defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity. It strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture and transnational companies that are destroying people and nature.”

    The 99% movement and OWS have broken some cultural ground here, but we’re very unsophisticated in this regard. We need to start identifying ourselves more clearly, explaining what kind of world we’re working toward, and not just saying what we’re against…even though this is VERY important also.

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