Last week during a debate with Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at George Washington University, Governor Howard Dean offered a compelling narrative about immigration in the United States:
I don’t believe we ought to demonize people who are trying to do the best they can… How many people in this hall have American Indian blood in you? Raise your hand… Everybody else is an immigrant! The reason this country is such an extraordinary success is because we got those people who dared to leave their homes, who dared to do something different … who took some risks. And their descendants are all here. Every American family has a narrative about somebody who worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees – and their grandchildren and great grandchildren got to go to George Washington University [location of debate]. We gotta keep that alive!
…When the Irish got here, no Irish needed apply. When the Jews got here, they couldn’t go to the Ivy League. When the Italians got here, they had to labor on the tunnels underneath New York. Everybody had to face this. Isn’t it time we stopped and accepted people who want to make America great, and let them be citizens again?
Why does Howard Dean’s answer resonate? Why is it a potent narrative? What are the narrative components? What emotions and cognitive frames does he prime and connect with?
“the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly”
If anyone managed to come away from Part I: Humans: not just selfish with an overly sentimental view of human nature, this post will rob you of that delusion. Yes, we humans have a remarkably developed faculty for cooperation and group-oriented behavior, in comparison to most other species. That’s an encouraging thing to know. And it may even become useful, if you start to identify the conditions that tend to set us up for cooperation. However, as Charles Darwin, David Sloan Wilson, and many others have suggested, the processes of group selection that helped us evolve to be cooperative within our groups probably also encouraged competition (to put it mildly) between groups.
Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson explain in their book, Unto Others:
…our goal … is not to paint a rosy picture of universal benevolence. Group selection does provide a setting in which helping behavior directed at members of one’s own group can evolve; however, it equally provides a context in which hurting individuals in other groups can be selectively advantageous. Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness. Group selection theory does not abandon the idea of competition that forms the core of the theory of natural selection…
And here’s Wilson again in The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest:
[Multilevel selection theory] has the capacity to explain the behavior of individuals who demonically work to undermine their groups (within-group selection), individuals who angelically work on behalf of their groups (the bright side of among-group selection) and avenging angels who work on behalf of their groups to destroy other groups (the dark side of among-group selection). We might not like the dark sides of animal and human nature, but they exist and require a theory to explain them. …multilevel selection theory has the potential to explain the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.
Why do you build me up, buttercup, just to let me down and mess me around? Seriously though, this just underscores that the purpose of this series is to use the lens of evolutionary theory not to idealize but to examine and better understand how humans and groups work, particularly in relation to collective action – and hopefully make practical use of that understanding.