Why Does Biology Matter in Political Science?

Directly challenging a long dominant paradigm, Albert Somit presents the case for a “more biologically oriented” political science.iStock-664582372-biology-cells-blue.png

The basic tenet of the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) is wrong. Human social and political behaviour is shaped not by culture alone, as the SSSM insists, but – a crucial difference – by the interplay between cultural AND biological influences.

Among the latter, age, illness, fatigue, pain, sleeplessness, gender and malnutrition are often operative. By far the most important of the biological influences, however, are the behavioural predispositions evolved literally over millions of years.

Truly powerful, neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory explains how “natural selection” works to perpetuate those behaviours which, on balance, enhance a species’ “inclusive fitness” (the ability to meet the challenges posed by its environment) – and to eliminate those behaviours (and species) which do not.

Neo-Darwinism also warns that “inclusive fitness” evolves in response to a given set of environmental characteristics. If and when the environment changes, behaviours which previously enhanced a species’ inclusive fitness may no longer do so, or even have an opposite effect.

Evolutionary theory applies to all forms of life. Though we might prefer otherwise, that includes our own species. We (Homo sapiens) are social primates, members (as are the chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) of that elite subset, the great apes, with whom we share more than 95% of our genes.

We have evolved many of our fellow social primates’ behavioural inclinations. Among these are altruism, intelligence, curiosity, cooperation, self-awareness, empathy and possibly sympathy.

But the most powerful of all, ethnologists agree, is the social primate quest for status, a desire reflected in hierarchical social and political structures, dominance and submission relations, and markedly differing access to the good things of life. Toward that end, not surprisingly, they also inclined to xenophobia, intrigue, deception and violence.

These, however, are only part of our genetic legacy. We have evolved some capabilities — vastly superior intelligence, culture and speech – which (we like to believe) set us apart from the other social primates, even from our brethren great apes. Recent research suggests, though, that the differences here may be relative, rather than absolute. There is one capability, though, which is truly unique to our species – indoctrinability, the remarkable ability to create values, beliefs, ideas, religions, moral systems, philosophies, etc – and to struggle, fight, kill, die on their behalf, even when the beliefs call for behaviours running counter to other of our genetic inclinations.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of our species, indoctrinability elicits the best and the worst of human nature. Consider, for instance, religious martyrdom and dying for flag and country, on the one hand and ethnocentric genocide and killing the non-believers, on the other.

What is the nature of human nature?

An evolutionary approach can enrich and strengthen political science in many ways. Above all, it can help provide a realistic answer to what has been the key issue in Western political philosophy from Plato on, “What is the nature of political man?” or, perhaps more  properly stated, “What is the nature of human nature?”

It can explain why, throughout recorded history, our species’ innate hierarchical inclinations have made autocracies so common – and democracies so relatively rare – and why even in a so-called “Age of Democracy” they still remain a minority.

Paradoxically, evolutionary theory also helps explain why, despite those hierarchical inclinations, a democracy evolves. If and when the acceptance of democratic ideas (ah, indoctrinability) occurs in conjunction with the emergence of a broad set of social, political, and economic “enabling” conditions, a viable democracy becomes possible.

Albert Somit is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, US.


Handbook of Biology and Politics edited by Steven A. Peterson and Albert Somit is out now.
Read Chapter 1 – What is Biopolitics? free on Elgaronline

Also on ElgarBlog: The Promise of the Life Sciences in Public AdministrationJoseph Losco, author of Chapter 3, explores the impact of life science findings for generating a more accurate portrait of human action – and the consequences for public administration.




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