Humans are coalitional animals. For millennia, group boundaries have organized our identities, motivated allegiances, and inspired feats of coordination the likes of which are unparalleled in the animal kingdom. In a recent paper co-authored with Rose McDermott and Michael Bang Petersen, I explored the implications of this coalitional nature for our understanding of international politics. We hypothesize that psychological adaptations exist that structure the way we think about groups, and that regulate cooperative and competitive behavior in the context of specific coalitional dynamics; specifically, we argue that humans are endowed with an evolved “coalitional psychology.” Evolutionary scientists from various disciplines have already generated a great deal of insight into various forms coalitional behavior that are relevant to the study of politics, such as: leadership ; the design, function, and effects of social institutions ; aggression and warfare ; and political ideology.
Consider the case of human outrage and the events that have inspired it: the 9/11 World Trade Center bombings; the drawings of Muhammad by a Danish journalist; a visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount; the sinking of The Maine in the prelude to the Spanish-American War; the 1933 burning of the Reichstag building in Germany. In the context of inter-group hostilities, humans are predictably incensed by threats to group status, especially when done in ways that seem to convey deep disrespect and derogation. In ancestral environments characterized by the absence of institutions designed to organize group-level action, one significant adaptive problem would have been the challenge of recruiting labor and focusing the efforts of that labor. This would have been especially challenging in the context of inter-group aggression, in which there would have been significant fitness premiums on the ability to organize and act quickly. As we explain in our paper, “The experience of outrage has been hypothesized by evolutionary psychologists to function as an emotional focal point around which supporters can coalesce and motivate action against an out-group.” Thus, the international and domestic outrage that prevailed after the 9/11 attacks facilitated broad and swift coalitional action against the Taliban in the period immediately after these attacks. However, in the run up to the Iraq war only about a year later, such a coalition was difficult to assemble absent the collective experience of outrage, and the so-called “coalition of the willing” was derisively referred to by many as the coalition of the “bribed and bullied.” Outrage is a powerful tool of coalitional action, and its effects can be seen throughout history. We argue that political outrage is the product of a coalitional psychology designed to navigate the complex world of group living.
Social scientists have increasingly turned to the life sciences for insights into various realms of human behavior, and the result has been a period of vibrant interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, within the last decade, political scientists have borrowed deeply and widely from fields such as behavior genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and primatology. As for myself, I am a political scientist, and I have been fortunate to receive direct training from evolutionary psychologists and biological anthropologists who have a particular interest in social and political behavior. These scholars apply an adaptationist perspective toward understanding human behavior, which argues that the human brain is composed of myriad adaptations that were designed by natural selection in ancestral environments.
What exactly do we mean by “psychological adaptation”? The function of the brain is to regulate behavior in response to the environment, and psychological adaptations are specific mechanisms in the brain designed to regulate behavior in particular domains, such as warfare. There is no one general adaptive challenge in the environment, such as “survive!” Instead, the environment is composed of a diversity of unique adaptive challenges, and evolutionary scientists expect that the range of extant psychological adaptations in the brain mirrors the diversity of adaptive challenges faced in ancestral environments. Of course, there is academic debate regarding the number and specificity of such adaptations, but what is clear is that the brain must be composed of adaptations built by natural selection for the purpose of regulating behavior, and that these adaptations are built in response to specific adaptive challenges. Therefore, the main task of adaptationist research is to identify and explain the functional fit between ancestral adaptive problems and the information-processing structure of psychological adaptations that modern humans possess.
As mentioned above, in my research I focus on a class of adaptive challenges that relate to human coalitional behavior. I argue that the dynamics of group living have posed unique adaptive challenges in response to which psychological adaptations for coalitional behavior may have been favored by natural selection. If this is the case, then much of the behavior we observe today in modern politics can at least be partly explained with reference to psychological adaptations designed to regulate this behavior in the evolutionary past.
There is an explosion of interdisciplinary interest in the psychological foundations of human coalitional behavior, and this research has deep implications for our understanding of politics. In an attempt to stay abreast of current research in this area, I operate a blog that catalogues and reviews recent academic literature. Feel free to visit, suggest relevant research that I have missed, and comment. As Associate Editor here in the Politics section of Evolution: This View of Life, along with Dominic Johnson, I’ll be exploring the connections between evolution and political behavior more broadly, which promises to be an exciting and interesting endeavor.