Social Evolution Forum
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Darwin Applied to Trump: Can Evolutionary Theory Help Us Understand the Appeal of Donald Trump?

Many Americans were shocked at Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election but those with graduate degrees in the social sciences and humanities were among the most mystified. These men and women may be paid a good salary to profess their knowledge and understanding of humans and their societies, but this expertise didn’t allow them to predict that someone like Trump could capture the vote of so many of their fellow Americans.

The 2016 election tightened the grip that conservatives have on US politics and this could pose a severe threat to the funding of scholarship in the social sciences and humanities in the country. But even though there is much discussion of the election result among these scholars, there have been few scholarly attempts to understand the appeal of the conservative message to so many Americans or why Trump’s rendering of it was particularly appealing.

The reasons for the Trump victory that have been proffered so far are mostly the opinions of pundits rather than scholars. Putting aside for a moment the outrage over lies, fake news, and interference from Russians, they are same tired old economic explanations. It’s claimed that Trump voters feel economically insecure, dissatisfied, envious, or just plain neglected. That phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid”, still resonates. We’re in the habit of looking at the economy to find post hoc explanations of people’s behavior and people themselves are inclined to point to the economy to justify their opinions and actions.

But if we want a fuller explanation of the appeal of conservatism, isn’t it time we tried exploring other approaches?

What does Darwin have to offer?

Hearing the name “Darwin” may cause many readers to anticipate a story of evolved genes that cause some people think in more conservative ways. Some evidence does suggest a very weak link between one gene and political affiliation1 but this isn’t our story. Darwin’s theories can be applied to more than the evolution of genes. In fact, Darwin knew nothing about genes. Biologists didn’t begin to understand genetic inheritance until some years after Darwin’s death.

What Darwin did (in his book On the Origin of Species published in 1859) was to provide a theory that made sense of patterns in the variation of living organisms. His theory, which he summarized as “descent with modification” has proved very successful in explaining change and diversity in the genes of populations. But there’s no reason that the same basic theory can’t help to explain patterns ibn
n cultural variation.2 Just as genes are passed from parent to child, cultural information passes between people as they interact. Children don’t “inherit” the beliefs of their parents because we can get our cultural information from many other people as well. We can also modify our beliefs based on our experiences and often pass on these personalized beliefs rather than exact copies of what we acquired from others. Nevertheless, most of what we “know” is based on what we have “inherited” from others.

Culture has been evolving very rapidly in almost all human populations for several generations and so it’s reasonable to assume that Darwin’s theory can provide insight into the patterns of cultural variation that have emerged from this evolutionary process. Overall, life for humans has improved. All over the world, people are healthier and more prosperous than they were a century ago. But the distribution of the benefits has been patchy and there have also been costs. Higher tech weaponry has made killing easier. Old ways of living and making a living have become impossible. These costs have also been unevenly distributed.

A Darwinian explanation of cultural change must look at changes in the pattern of social interaction. It’s through these interactions that we inherit our cultural information. Each one can result in the cultural equivalent of “mating”, with information passing from one mind to the other. No offspring is conceived as a result of this transfer, but the mind of one or both of the participants comes out of the experience subtly altered.

“The Family”

Patterns of social interaction have profoundly changed in almost all human populations during the last 300 years. For almost all of human history and pre-history, going back maybe two million years, “The Family” was the main social institution organizing people’s lives.3

Human biology makes it essential that our young be raised in families. This isn’t the case for the species closest to us on the evolutionary tree. Like most mammals, chimp, bonobo, gorilla and orangutan females can successfully raise their young without help. It’s likely that this started to change in the human lineage as our ancestors began to evolve larger brains. In order to grow their large brain, our babies have to be born large but helpless. Once born, they grow very slowly and require a regular supply of energy-rich nutritious food. A human can only survive to adulthood if its mother receives a considerable amount of help – help from several people, not just the baby’s father.4

Families are child-rearing teams. Not all team members do a lot of hands-on childcare but all members are expected to play a role, perhaps by helping to gain resources or by providing protection, advice or useful connections. Over the years our ancestors evolved a wide variety of ways to organize these teams. Families vary enormously in size, complexity, and behavior. But the basic function of the family is always the same – or at least it was until recently. Families were a bit like primitive living organisms. Their members worked together to keep their family going, acquiring resources from the environment to maintain themselves and create a new generation of members.

As brain size increased in the human lineage, the amount and quality of the help mothers received also had to increase. The pattern of growth and development that produced large-brained humans co-evolved with the pattern of “team parenting” behavior that supported this growth and development. This could not have been simple co-evolution of genes.5,6 Our genetic inheritance may be responsible for the emotional foundation of human family behavior, helping to create and maintain bonds between family members, but we clearly don’t have genes that program us to either be good mothers or to provide appropriate help to mothers. We learn how to be family members as we grow up in a family. Our early experience of receiving and giving care in a family influences how we behave for the rest of our lives. The environment in which we learn about the world and how to survive in it is part of our family inheritance. The influence it has on our behavior is at least as important as our genetic inheritance.

Over thousands of generations in the distant past, the genetic changes associated with the increase in human brain size evolved in concert with the cultural changes necessary to support young with resource-hungry brains. Families which were most successful in raising young were those that maintained beliefs, rules, customs and habits which kept a group of people working together as an efficient child-raising team. Those which were less successful died out. It was natural selection, between families. Information (cultural information and genetic information) associated with the most efficient conversion of resources into offspring was most likely to be passed on to the next generation.

The origins of conservatism

A brief consideration of the beliefs, rules, customs and habits consistent with the efficient conversion of resources into offspring yields a list that nowadays typifies “extreme conservatism.” The most successful families would have members who saw it as natural that:

1. The interests of the family must come first.

− Members must try not to even think about what might be in their own personal interests. “Obey and respect your elders” is a good general rule.

2. It must always be assumed that people will put the interests of their family first.

− It, therefore, doesn’t make sense to trust a friend as much as a family member and non-family members will never see you as completely trustworthy.

3. Strangers who act friendly or generous are particularly untrustworthy.

− Why would anyone do this? They are insulting your intelligence.

4. Children are a blessing and should behave like blessings.

− They should be eager to perform as much work as their age and skill level allows, including the care, supervision, and correction of younger children.

5. Women and girls should want to be mothers and perform work compatible with motherhood and childcare.

− The future of the family depends on having reproductive age females willing to endure the discomfort and risks of pregnancy and childbirth. They should not want to waste their time doing things that men and boys can do.

6. Sexual behavior likely to result in pregnancy must be controlled by the family so that births are controlled.

− A baby can’t survive unless it’s born within a team that is able and willing to raise it. Producing babies that can’t be raised is upsetting and wasteful.

7. Mating outside one’s immediate family is necessary but ideally, a match can be arranged between members of related families or family friends.

− This makes it more likely that relatives of the bride and groom can agree and work together providing help to the children that result from their marriage.

Maintaining a set of cultural traits that caused people to behave in accordance with these basic rules not only enabled a family to successfully compete against other families; it also made it likely that individual members of the family enjoyed greater genetic “fitness” than members of families which were less efficiently turning resources into offspring. Future generations included more genes from members of efficient families.

Historical and anthropological studies suggest that, despite vast cultural variation, respect for elders, primacy of family, xenophobia, child labor, gender division of labor, high birth rates, and arranged marriages were commonly considered to be “normal” in most parts of Europe until the 18th or 19th century and in most non-European countries until the 20th century.7 Of course, families had “black sheep”. There was disobedience, unfairness, jealously, and occasional cuckoldry.8 And, in the places and times that are of most interest to historians, normal behavior was often suspended. In cities and during wartime, prostitution, venereal disease, destitute orphans and all manner of sin and vice could be found.

But most of our ancestors were born, grew up and raised their children well away from cities and wars. The majority of them were members of the more efficient childcare teams, thriving in the good times and surviving the bad. Natural selection favored behaviors that added to the efficiency of those teams and the genetic and cultural traits associated with these behaviors.

A Darwinian view of “modernization”

In the last few centuries, family-promoting cultural traits began to weaken and this has revolutionized the way humans live. Most humans alive today don’t belong to teams that efficiently turn resources into offspring. Even though we’re more prosperous than our ancestors, we produce very few offspring. Fertility is very low or falling rapidly in almost all human populations.

And it isn’t just norms about family size that have changed; the whole suite of the family-promoting cultural traits has been affected. The effect has been largest in Western populations. Far from seeing elders as worthy of respect, we Westerners often see them as time-expired, an awkward burden. We see our offspring as a responsibility rather than a blessing. Instead of being taught that they have a duty to contribute to their family, Western children are urged to figure out what will make them happy in life and to work for that. We can’t imagine giving an eight-year-old the responsibility of caring for a three-year-old and believe child labor to be immoral. The idea of parents being allowed to control their children’s choice of marriage partner also appalls us. For Westerners, marriages are about adults seeking happiness. We long ago ceased to see marriage as a partnership for the raising of children.

Why did these cultural changes happen? A superficial look might suggest that it was the result of rational reasoning. Individuals might have simply seen that maintaining a strong family was no longer a practical necessity and so they changed their minds about how to behave. But the idea of rational reasoning being involved seems laughable given the emotion generated by discussion of changes in “family values”.

It couldn’t have been that that simple. The family-promoting culture of our ancestors was not the work of ancient social engineers. It was the product of many generations of gene-culture co-evolution. When our forebears acquired beliefs, rules, customs and habits which caused them to be hard working members of an efficient child-rearing team, it was not because they judged these cultural traits to be of practical value. They began to acquire them when they were too young to be capable of rational thought. We humans learn how to behave by observing and experiencing the people around us and by feeling the consequences of our own actions.

Also, the weakening of the family-promoting cultural traits didn’t happen all at once, as one would expect if it was simply the reasoned abandonment of outmoded ideas. The weakening has been an evolutionary process. For example, the grandmother of one of us (Lesley), born in England in the early 20th century, was less assiduously devoted to the interests of the family than her own mother. She only produced two children, even though she had grown up in a family of five surviving children. Nevertheless, many of the family-promoting traits were strong in her. By today’s standards, she was very “conservative”. Her son became an engineer but she expected her daughter (Lesley’s mother) to work as a secretary and to quit working as soon as she married. Her mother complied.

Our training in Darwin’s theory of evolutionary change suggests that the gradual weakening of family promoting traits can be thought of as the accumulation of mutations in the cultural information that had previously encouraged people to devote their lives to the interests of their family. By 1800, women in some parts of France were already choosing to limit the number of children they had,9 suggesting that they no longer possessed a complete set of fulling functioning family-promoting cultural variants. Over the next few generations, more and more Europeans failed to inherit the idea that children were a blessing. By the early 20th century, fertility was falling rapidly in most European populations, including populations descended from people who had migrated from Europe to other continents.

At the same time, new mutations were appearing in the cultural information that Europeans were inheriting. By 1900, many new social institutions were organizing the lives of Europeans and the role of The Family was much diminished.10 And yet, judging by the writing of the time, including diaries, letters, and memoirs,11 most Europeans retained the belief that it was their duty to respect those in authority and put the interests of the larger group ahead of their own interests. In many people’s minds, the concept of “my family” had been partly replaced with the larger social groups they felt they belonged to, such as “my nation”, “my church” and “my race”. This was a time of intense nationalism, religious fervor, and racism in Europe. Between 1914 and 1918 millions of Europeans dutifully laid down their lives to further what their leaders told them were the interests of their nation.

The evolution of Western culture has continued steadily over the last 100 years but remnants of family promoting beliefs are still retained. For example, we still consider it “natural” that wealthier and better-connected families will strive to obtain superior schools and more lenient justice for their children.

The weakening of the family promoting cultural traits coincides very closely with the change in the pattern of social interaction and the emergence of other social institutions to take over the role of the family. Both happened first in Europe. In 18th century Europe, social, technological and economic change began to make it both possible and advantageous for people to form strong social connections outside the family. Travel became easier and more and more families found that their young people could gain a better living if they left home and joined a workforce. As more people learned to read, more books, pamphlets, and newspapers became available to satisfy their curiosity about life outside their local communities. Within a few generations, non-European populations also started to experience widening social interaction and increased exposure to media.

Such changes transform the flow of cultural ideas. People gain wider social identities. In towns, clubs, religious congregations, political parties, unions and secret societies provide lonely newcomers with new comrades and brethren. Most people continue to see themselves as members of a family living within a local community but they also began to identify themselves as members of a workforce, a social class, an ethnic group, a religion or a nation.12

As a result, the constant trickle of information from family members re-enforcing ideas of duty to family becomes diluted by other information streams. There’s no reason to believe that this will instantly wipe out the beliefs, rules, customs and habits that had been passed down the generations for thousands of years. But there is every reason to believe that the dilution of the message will make it less likely that populations will maintain complete and accurate versions of the cultural traits that had kept their forebears loyal to the interests of their families. Before long, the trickle of information from family members starts to alter and become less coherent. An easily observed effect of this is a sharp reduction in the number of children people have. And as time goes on, more and more “mutations” appear in the family-promoting cultural traits. Loyalty to family becomes loyalty to the fatherland, the motherland, the King, “God, the Father” etc.

Red states, blue states and failed states

Patterns of cultural variation are the result of many influences but explanations of these influences are of two types. They can be historical, such as Fischer’s observation that regional voting patterns in the United States can be tied to the point of origin in the British Isles of people who settled in the region in previous centuries.13 Or they can be environmental, such as Inglehart’s observation that what he calls the “political style” of a group of people can be tied to the level of security in the environment in which they were socialized.14 No explanation can be the whole story and new ideas are not necessarily a threat to old ones.

A Darwinian view of modernization suggests another way that a population’s history can influence its culture. The amount of time that has passed since the widening of social interaction is revealed to be potentially important in explaining the pattern of cultural differences. The more time that has passed, the more changes are likely to have accumulated in the population’s family-promoting cultural traits. This predicts that, because the widening of social interactions happened first in Europe, the feeling of family obligation will be stronger in non-Western populations. This has been observed, even in among non-Western immigrants to Western countries.15

Populations which began to experience widening social interactions most recently, such as those in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, appear extremely conservative to Westerners. Elders are still honored and marriages are still arranged. Sexual behavior is kept under strict social control and girls are brought up differently from their brothers. People in these populations are so loyal to family, tribe, and religion that they seem unable to see where their own individual best interests lie. Westerners find these frustrating places to do business, distribute aid, or broker peace deals. Modern social institutions premised on individual autonomy cannot work effectively if feelings of family loyalty are strong.

A Darwinian approach also suggests explanations for cultural differences between sub-populations within a country such as the United States. Immigrants to Western countries from populations of non-European descent are likely to be more conservative than the native population. If they integrate well, the differences are much reduced in their children but they don’t always integrate well. In places where these immigrants come to make a large proportion of the population, they may influence Westerners in their communities to become more conservative.

The observation that the older people in a population tend to be more conservative can be explained by the fact that they have lived during an earlier time in the modernization process and experienced interaction with people who lived during an even earlier time. In Western populations, their conservatism may not explicitly promote the family because it consists of only remnants of the family promoting cultural traits. These remnants can generate a range beliefs and feelings. They may cause people to feel that sexual behavior needs to be kept within strict bounds, that youngsters should respect authority and that everyone should love their country. It’s easy to see how such feelings could make people suspicious of foreign-seeming “experts” claiming that their pronouncements are supported by incomprehensible evidence. And it’s easy to see how such feelings could make people inclined to give unexamined credence to the statements people who look, sound and behave like their friends and countrymen.

A Darwinian approach suggests that people who, by choice or accident, do not live in urban areas and did not attend college, are likely to be more conservative. They have been exposed to a narrower range of social interactions. Their parents and grandparents may have also been isolated from the variety of social interactions that are available to more cosmopolitan Westerners. Extreme examples of rural isolation arresting modernization can be seen in the Old Order Anabaptist communities that have spread through rural areas of the United States and Canada.16 These are descended from European immigrants of strict Protestant sects – Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these communities chose to continue to live “simply” in small family-based communities, avoiding education beyond age 13, friendships with outsiders and exposure to non-permitted books and most modern media. By and large, these communities maintain a complete and functioning set of family-promoting cultural traits and have very high fertility.

Members of the Old Order Anabaptist communities keep themselves so separate that they rarely vote. But the rural and suburban Americans, whose isolation is less extreme, generally choose to vote Republican and in 2016 the vast majority voted for Donald Trump.

Trump’s behavior may not be consistent with some people’s view of “family values” but there are several reasons why conservative Americans might find him appealing. Now in his eighth decade, he has acquired the air of a patriarch. Family is clearly is important to him and his five children. And, while the liberals and the US constitution urge people to greater inclusiveness, Trump’s beliefs are more consistent with the remnant of the family promoting idea which insists that we need to put “our own” first. He and his daughter, Ivanka, have explicitly stated that once he is president, “his own” will include all law-abiding American citizens. Some of his statements have implied that “his own” especially includes Americans who, like himself, are of European and Christian descent. Such statements appeal to the nationalism and ethnocentrism strongly felt by many living in rural areas.

The Darwinian approach makes no specific predictions about African American and Native American populations. They have shared a continent with people of European descent for many generations and yet continue to be seen as separate. This is more a matter of identity than culture, however. Like European Americans, those with African and Native ancestry are modern and, like Europeans, they vary in the extent to which they retain remnants the family-promoting cultural traits of their forebears.

Is this the end of “modernization”?

There is reason to look back at the cultural changes of the last couple of centuries with feelings of satisfaction. For most of our history and pre-history human populations were divided up into myriad competing families, each trying to survive and grow in a world of limited resources. This is often seen as a trap – the Malthusian Trap that kept our ancestors living to the limits of their means and prevented them seeing the benefits of forming wider social partnerships and pursuing other goals. It was in Europe that humans first broke out of this trap by gradually abandoning the beliefs and habits associated with efficiently turning resources into offspring. They stopped believing that they should accept as many children as fate (or God) would give them. This change occurred decades before the development of modern contraceptive technology but couples still large succeeded in limiting the number of children they had. And, instead of bringing these children up to simply be good family members, they prepared them to pursue the other goals the modern world was beginning to offer.17

The pursuit of other goals has made our lives far richer. The coming together of more and more minds has brought an explosion of innovation, not just technological innovation but new ideas about how it is possible to live and behave. It’s been a wild ride, terrifying from time to time and more uncomfortable for some than for others.

Is it now over?

It appears that large numbers of Westerners want to secure their borders and exchange ideas only within the safety of their Facebook communities. Many members of non-Western populations are striving and sometimes fighting to stop or reverse the cultural changes that modernization is bringing to their people. This is bound to disappoint members of academic and business elites who can more clearly see the benefits which emerge from interaction and trade between peoples and nations.

If the Darwinian mechanism described here has merit, the cultural changes of modernization will continue. They’re part of an evolutionary process triggered by changes in the pattern of social interaction that occurred several generations ago. But as Westerners interact with people at an earlier point in this process, their modernization may slow down. Because most humans live in the moment, Westerners perceive a great moral divide between themselves and the peoples in the Middle East and African who have begun to modernize recently. But this Darwinian view suggests that what seems to be a great divide is simply the result of populations being at different points in the process of cultural change. The same moral divide would exist between ourselves and our own great-grandparents if we could meet them in their youth when they were giving voice to the racism, sexism, homophobia and bellicosity which caused so much bloodshed and misery in the 20th century.

The long term future for modernization is very uncertain. Even though the fertility of the human population is falling rapidly, it continues to grow because in many populations fertility was still high 20 to 40 years ago. The children born then are now having their own children. They may be choosing to have far fewer children than their parents did but because there are so many people of reproductive age, the birth rate still outstrips the death rate in most populations. Humans are living longer and the mean age of the population is rising, bringing additional problems. But more problematic is the increasing rate at which we are using resources and creating waste. It’s possible that we will succeed in culturally evolving institutions or technology that will help us to continue to prosper. Success is more likely if we continue to make new links between peoples so we can tackle problems together. And this will be more likely if we can learn to be less judgmental of people who happen to be at different stages of the modernization process. We may feel that we want to argue and fight in hopes of changing views but if the understanding provided by Darwinian theory has merit, their view will change. It will just take time.

And in the meantime, the political struggle between more and less modern people seems fated to continue. Our differences are more a matter of emotional commitment than reason. But even in the midst of a fight, wisdom lies in trying to understand and respect one’s “enemies”. Blind hatred or contempt makes the fighting worse and the prospects of peace more distant.

1. J. E. Settle, C. T. Dawes, N. A. Christakis, J. H. Fowler, Friendships moderate an association between a dopamine gene variant and political ideology. The Journal of Politics 72, 1189 (2010).
2. A. Whiten, R. A. Hinde, K. N. Laland, C. B. Stringer, Culture evolves. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (B) 366, 938 (2011).
3. K. Davis, Kingsley Davis on reproductive institutions and the pressure for population. Population and Development Review 23, 611 (1937/1997).
4. S. B. Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009).
5. R. Boyd, P. J. Richerson, J. Henrich, The Cultural Niche. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108, 10918 (2011).
6. L. Newson, in Building Babies: Primate Development in Proximate and Ultimate Perspective, K. Clancy, K. Hinde, J. Rutherford, Eds. (Springer New York, 2013).
7. C. Antweiler, Our Common Denominator: Human universals revisited. (Berghahn, New York, 2016).
8. M. Larmuseau et al., Low historical rates of cuckoldry in a Western European human population traced by Y-chromosome and genealogical data. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 280, 20132400 (2013).
9. J.-B. Moheau, Jean-Baptiste Moheau on the moral causes of diminished fertility. Population and Development Review 26, 821 (2000).
10. K. Davis, Reproductive institutions and the pressure for population. Sociological Review 7, 289 (1937).
11. V. Brittan, Testament of Youth. (Victor Gollanca, London, 1933).
12. B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (Verso, London, 1992).
13. D. H. Fischer, Albion’s seed: four British folkways in America. America, a cultural history ; v. 1. (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989), pp. xxi, 946.
14. R. Inglehart, The Silent Revolution: Changing values and political styles among Western publics. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1977).
15. A. J. Fuligni, V. Tseng, M. Lam, Attitudes toward family obligations among American adolescents with Asian, Latin American, and European backgrounds. Child development 70, 1030 (1999).
16. C. E. Hurst, D. L. McConnell, An Amish paradox: Diversity and change in the world’s largest Amish community. (JHU Press, 2010).
17. A. J. Coale, in The Decline of Fertility in Europe, A. J. Coale, S. C. Watkins, Eds. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1986), pp. xxii, 484, [12] folded leaves of plates.


Join the discussion


  1. Bryan Maloney says:

    The beginning of this essay is intriguing, and it makes sense through most of its statements. Unfortunately, it abandons evolutionary science at the end. Evolution is not development. The current trajectory of any evolutionary trend cannot be taken as a predictor of the trend in the future. Something that I have had to stress time after time is that unlike development, the direction taken by evolution is entirely retrospective. There is no predetermined route or rate to evolution. There is no correct or incorrect evolutionary path. Development has a blueprint and a generally normal rate. Neither exist for evolution. There are neither lower nor higher forms, and language like “If the Darwinian mechanism described here has merit, the cultural changes of modernization will continue. They’re part of an evolutionary process triggered by changes in the pattern of social interaction that occurred several generations ago. But as Westerners interact with people at an earlier point in this process, their modernization may slow down.” reveals a sad ignorance of this fundamental fact of evolution.

    There is no inevitability to any evolutionary process, there is no ultimate goal or “paradise” waiting for us at the end of the process.

    A Darwinian process could be completely determining cultural evolution and it would not mean anything regarding the ultimate outcome. Darwinian cultural evolution does not inherently favor “modernism” or any other personal desire. Darwinian evolution is, very simply, nothing succeeds like success, and if environmental conditions become such that “modernism” significantly impairs survival, then Darwinian evolution will work against “modernism”.

    Darwinian evolution does not play favorites.

    • Lesley says:

      Bryan, I agree with you that Darwinian evolution doesn’t play favourites. But it is often the case that an evolutionary trajectory exists which does allow us to predict which traits are likely to be selected. When organisms move to a different environment, different traits are selected. This places them on an evolutionary trajectory to become better adapted to their new environment and less well adapted to their old environment. Think of a group of fish that has been swept into a lightless cave. The first few generations of fish will be similar to their parents but individuals that lack functioning eyes and other characteristics which were beneficial in a lighted environment will survive and reproduce. In fact, such individuals will now be at an advantage because not developing unnecessary traits will save time and energy.
      In the case of the cultural evolutionary process known as “modernization”, it is the informational environment that has changed. Once humans begin to receive information from a wide diversity of sources, family promoting beliefs, customs and habits can begin to weaken. And as long as they continue to have wide social connections, this weakening will continue. People are unlikely to spontaneously reacquire family promoting traits just as fish in lightless caves are unlikely to spontaneously reacquire functioning eyes. Once people have decided that it is immoral to force one’s daughter to marry her second cousin, they are unlikely to change their minds.

      • Rich Howard says:

        Great article. I have begun understanding so much of person behavior in terms of adaption of individuals. Group theory has interested me, but I’m just beginning to get it in perspective.
        Is it not the efficiencies of economics, marketing and other externals that are challenging our group adaptations in modern life? These externals challenge not just our jobs, our daily obligations, but they are up against family group adaptions that are biologically a part of us. Conservatives are those less adapted to this modern life. Their life style choices and beliefs are understandably defensive and getting dangerous.

  2. Helga Vierich says:

    Interesting essay. I’m afraid however that the authors need to integrate more data from the study of human cultures.

    The family unit isn obviously critical – but it is NOT the only social unit of vital importance during human evolution. Humans did not evolve in “family” groups, they evolved within much larger social entities. No “family” – even if it had several generations alive – could effectively survive for very long. It does not represent an adequate unit, either genetically or culturally.

    Families have to be articulated with larger social entities, to just for safety and adequate nutrition of the young, but also for sources of future membership, The social networks of individual human beings are not just limited to family members. These individual networks extend outward to people who are unrelated – to “friends” and acquaintances. Often these non-relatives are closer to an individual than relatives, and thus these networks lead people to find their partners far form their natal group. so there is a constant outward rippling of members form family groups, each new generation founding new centres that radiate out again with each generation.

    Even in lineage-based tribal societies, we find the incorporation of unrelated members, not just through marriage but also through adoption and exchanger of offspring. Among hunter-gatherers each set of siblings is often, in adulthood, scattered among many different camping parties over hundreds of square miles. The individual man or woman forming a married partnership each will bring to the arrangement an often only slightly overlapping set of kinship and friendship connections.. and these will be only partly – and differently – inherited by each of their children. It is the larger community of people – in outwardly expanding circles – that each child will enter as they grow.

    I really cannot see any of this as applicable to the Trump presidency or voting base that gave rise to it. For that, I think we need to look at a very recent and local cultural system, not to the longer process of human cultural (or biological) evolution – and we cannot really evoke evolution to explain it, unless we also deal with the reality that most stratified empires tend to collapse.

    • Lesley says:

      First of all, we agree that many factors influence patterns of cultural diversity and cultural change. Our purpose is to suggest a new one. We also agree that families are embedded within groups of families, individuals have interaction with non-family members and it is common for people to move to a new family, when they marry for example.
      But I think you will agree that in pre-modern populations the role of family in people’s lives is far greater. Families organize labour, provide care to the sick, educate the inexperienced and seek revenge for those who have been wronged. Although people in pre-modern populations have plenty of interaction with non-family members, they get virtually all their social information in face-to-face interaction and in their early years a great deal of that is with family members. All of this changed dramatically quite recently. Such a change in patterns of social interaction and social identity are bound to have profound and long term effects.
      The link with Trump is his appeal to people’s xenophobia. As people modernize they have more exposure to and become more tolerant of the “unfamiliar”. They realize that people have different customs and beliefs. They may change their mind on the basis of a logical argument backed up with evidence. But gaining this sophistication is process and different people are at different points in the process. Trump unashamedly appeals to people who can’t see why we should be tolerant of things that seem wrong to them. Trump says it is all right to see people as being “OK” and “not OK”. He believes we should be nice to our friends (like Israel) no matter what they do and to never forgive those who we see as our traditional enemies.
      I agree that in explaining the election result “we need to look at a very recent and local cultural system”. But everyone is doing that. Pete and I are arguing that we should also consider the possibility that an underlying cultural evolutionary process is introducing diversity.

      • Helga Vierich says:

        So you are suggesting that there is an evolutionary pattern of greater reliance on relatives within the family than on those outside it, for support and for trustworthy information? I can see this for very young children, but as a child grows up, they meet peers form other families, even from people not closely related at all. These sometimes become deep friendships that persist throughout a lifetime. This is not a new phenomenon, and cultures that close off chances for their children to form these kinds of friendships tend to do so by establishing boundaries that stress the differences and the inferiority of an outside community.

        You mention modernization as if this opened up the range of sources of information – but there is evidence, both ethnographic and archaeological, that people have information sources as well as potential contacts and access to material goods, form regions thousands of miles away. The phenomenon of six degrees of separation linking people across continents, or even worldwide, has been well studied. So innovations and stories travel via eager conversations – spreading form network to network via connecting hubs and multilingualism. These are aspects of our human cognitive adaptation too the cultural environment.

        What is really interesting though, is the way people – even people within the same family – can pick up different stories, different interpretations of reality. The recent elections, both in the USA and Canada – as well as the UK Brexit vote – has at times split up friends and turned brother against brother. Much like the issue of slavery – or acceptance of Darwinism vs Creation myths – communities can be pulled apart by adherents to different systems of explanation.

        Trump’s story was about being competent at making business deals and negotiating skills. He came across as relatively fearless – his wealth buffered him form any questioning of his merit in matters of business. It was almost as though he thought he was running for the position of the CEO of the United States, rather than the position of President. He wanted to be THE authority figure at the top of the political system – and in this, I agree, the idea of the strong family man who rules his empire and passed it down to his offspring might have helped him. People in the industrial economies tend to trust family businesses to look after their employees as if they were family – this is a common meme in films and popular culture.
        The idea of a family business is far removed forms he kinds of almost faceless corporate entities that appear to dominate the world today… and it is these that have been associated with the aspect of “Wall Street” that is closely aligned with the interests of the Neoliberal policies of the Washington (and international) establishment.

        Then there was the mobilization of the dislike of “liberalism” – appealing to many people who were fed up with politically correct repugnance of bigotry toward homosexuals and trans-gendered people, racism, sexism and elitism.

      • Lesley says:

        There is much evidence that people are influenced by those that they spend time with and whom they “identify” with. We modern people tend to categorize ourselves as a certain type of person and behave according to type. For example, if we put our self in the “academic” category, we know that we will behave and are expected to behave in certain ways – to conform to the group norms.

        In pre-modern communities “spending time” with others involves being in their physical vicinity and the number and variety of people an individual can meet with are limited simply because travel is difficult. The number and variety of identities a person can assume are also limited.

        The group we call “the family” exists in all cultures because human biology demands that groups of people need to cooperate in the raising of children. People spend much of their time in the proximity of family members and are therefore influenced by them. Most identified with their family. In many cultures people are called by their “family name”. People in pre-modern populations were likely influenced more by their families than people in modern populations. They likely identified more strongly with their family. This is because modern people, even quite young children, have the opportunity to “spend time” with a large number and variety of individuals through media and through face-to-face interactions at school, work, clubs etc.

        I think it is reasonable to suggest that people in pre-modern populations tend to be more influenced by family than people in modern populations. They may have had deep lifetime friendships with non-family members but they were likely to be family friends.

        It is undoubtedly true that pre-modern people had access to information and goods from far beyond the regions in which they lived. But this is not the same as being able to see full colour moving pictures of people suffering on the other side of the planet and being moved to do something to try to help them.

        Family members can indeed pick up completely different stories. I have a friend who won a scholarship to an elite high school while her sister went to the ordinary local school. My friend went on to university, lives in California and supported Bernie Sanders. Her sister still lives in the same town in Florida and voted for Trump. But I think that this diversity of views much more characteristic of families in modern populations. Such diversity of experience and outcome would not have been possible in a pre-modern population.

        I believe our cultural evolutionary approach explains the “dislike of ‘liberalism’” which you describe better than any other approach. It is often suggested that they have their roots in religion or poverty but I can’t see it. Many religions preach liberalism and poverty can be coupled with generosity and openness. It makes more sense to me that the desire to control sex and belief that women should be kept in their place are remnants of family promoting cultural traits. Other remnants generate a suspicion of unfamiliar arguments and the belief that it is morally right to favour “one’s own” over outsiders. Does this make sense to you?

        • Rich Howard says:

          Too much cultural interpretation here. Although the authors are trying to give some needed political perspective, their reasoning is based on evolution theory that is well regarded in science.
          Here’s how I would phrase it:

          Our species biologically required 12+years to reproductive age has favored adaptions for lasting family ties. These traits are often not well adapted to many aspects of modern and/or western culture. In particular, global economics, marketing and exposure to diverse cultures have become the means to individual survival, but do not resonate with family adaptations. Family adaptions, being traits that are biological, will take time to change. In the meantime, cognitive dissonance and physical violence will be the order of the day unless we force our intellect to curb our impulses.

          And, you can quote me on that!

          • Jeff Hartnett says:

            Rich, I agree with almost all of your thoughts in your multiple postings following the article sent. However, the last couple of sentences about “cultural dissonance” ….. if that is the case, in the very near future, if the cultural upheavals continue to accelerate due to the invention and exponential rise of the digital world, we will be beyond depression and anxiety — we will be predictably nuts (sorry for non-academic term)! A new world is coming which is so different from the “evolutionary family-structure” model carefully described that is cited in the article that the old/new clash will be enormous, much beyond the changes that are currently occurring as reflected by conservatism in general or Trump in particular.

        • Jeff Hartnett says:

          I assume that the invention of printing was a major invention that would send cultural waves out, leading toward modernity and a rise in democratic (vs. conservative) thinking. How about the invention of science, democracy, philosophy, urbanism, the fine arts, etc that flourished with the Greeks 2,500 years ago. Is this an insignificant time span when compared to time spans involved in evolutionary biology? Greece, 2,500 years ago, was (arguably) a time of cultural harmony, or even better, and not a time of “dissonance”, i.e. instead of a reaction to cultural changes leading to conservatism, it led to its opposite.

        • Rich Howard says:

          Jeff, Not to sound alarmist, but yes I don’t see any reversal to the stresses modern life and inventions are placing on us. From and evolutionary perspective you’d think there would be enough push back on stressor that we are not adapted for. There no doubt us and we see them in religion and politics and more, but our individual desires are at play too and arent these what economics and marketing are aimed at?

  3. John Strate says:

    Data from the National Election Study will soon be available to analyze. Analyzing the vote, I’d expect that logistic regression analysis will show that party ID and religiosity (church attendance), race, sex, and possibly education will show the largest effects. The author’s argument seems to be sound. Living in a community with a large Arab-American population (Dearborn, MI), it’s plain that the first generation is strongly family oriented, more socially conservative, and has some trouble adjusting to American culture and values. By the third generation, assimilation is complete. I’m not sure about “family values” being stronger in the rural areas and small towns of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. “Make America Great Again” resonated with a lot of them. Globalization hasn’t worked out so well for them. Some are poor and others are just hanging on. Their children are picking up and moving to find work. Also, they’ve not escaped the epidemics of heroin and OxyC. Looking at Ms. Clinton, they saw too much pluribus, not enoough unum.

    • Lesley says:

      I have been trying to develop ideas about why what we call “conservatism” is associated with a number of attitudes. What links these opinions, habits and behaviours that logistic regression consistently links with voting Republican?

      I am not suggesting that Trump voters necessarily have strong “family values” but that during the cultural evolutionary process called “modernization” feelings that were previously directed at family widen to include a wider group of people whom we recognize to be “like us” or “our own”. Trump appealed to people who feel that the good things of life, once acquired, should not be distributed too widely. And they feel that it is OK for the group we call “us” (i.e. Americans, white people, Christians) to benefit at the expense of those we think of as “them”. They may claim that globalization hasn’t worked out well for them but most of them are actually benefiting from the inexpensive manufactured goods and cheap food that immigration and globalization makes possible. Their dislike of globalization and immigration is broader than mere economics, I think.

      • Rich Howard says:

        Fear. Look up “cognitive dissonance”. Also look up formation of emotional understanding during adolescence.

        In short, much high level emotional learning happens when brain regions turn on at puberty. The learning is largely done when puberty ends. The result is, we have an emotional understanding of life fixed at the time of young adulthood. Our intellectual understanding happens in a region that remains much more plastic. As time goes by cultures change, and our emotional understanding is increasingly in conflict with our intellectual understanding. The result is known as “cognitive dissonance”, processing two opposing understandings at once. Cognitive dissonance is thought to be a root of fear and depression.

        So, if you simply did not grow up in a place and time that reflect what your future life will be, then you will be challenged… biologically.

  4. Scott Schneider says:

    Your methodology is extremely flawed.
    The practice of voter fraud by bussing voters from polling place to polling place means that you have no accurate data from which to extrapolate a theory, unless you want to discuss the prevalence of crime in urban voting centers vs. rural areas.

    • Jeff Hartnett says:

      127 million votes were cast. Experts conclude that there was virtually no voting fraud — your mostly imaginary person being bussed from place to place to cast votes illegally. Look at the math. Even if, hypothetically, 10,000 people participated in this “bussing scheme”, that’s 0.008% of the vote. By way of contrast, Clinton won the popular vote by 1.2% of the vote, and yet “lost” the election. That seems the more logical election results “difference” to be concerned about!

      • Scott Schneider says:

        In my state no identification is required to vote. How do your “experts” know how many votes were cast by illegals?
        Are they psychics? Besides the saturation of media with effective political messages can account for the popularity of one candidate over another which has nothing to do with
        Darwinism. Edwin Bernays could get anyone to vote for Trump, and like it.

  5. David Ronfeldt says:

    I’d like to try mentioning an explanation (derived from what I call TIMN) for Trump’s rise that has some overlap with your own and is implicitly as Darwinian. Conceptually it relies on talking about “tribes” rather than “families”. In a practical sense, it is more suited to talking to policy analysts and strategists.

    PROPOSITION: When people feel disconnected from and distressed about what’s happening with the government and market forms that are supposed to make society work properly, many people revert to thinking and acting in terms of the tribal form. That is, they turn tribal — and some become extreme tribalists, bitter and nasty in all sorts of ways. What is going on today in America conforms to this TIMN dynamic. America is becoming newly tribalized.

    EXPLANATION: In brief, TIMN theory finds that, over the ages, people have come up with four cardinal forms of organization for constructing their societies: tribes (or the T form), hierarchical institutions (the I form), markets (M), and information-age networks (N). Each form of organization has different purposes and uses, along with different philosophical and strategic implications. Each form also has both bright and dark sides, and can be used for good or ill; societies can get them wrong as well as right, in ways that affect their usage of the other forms.

    For various reasons, these forms have arisen and matured at different rates and in different eras — tribes (T) took shape first, hierarchical institutions (+I) were next, then markets (+M), and now information-age networks (+N) are increasingly on the rise. Societies progress according to their abilities to add and combine these forms (and their resulting sectors of activity). How people manage to use and combine these forms, their bright and dark sides, pretty much determines what kind of society they have. Advanced societies depend on people’s abilities to use all four forms in a coherent, well-balanced, well-functioning whole.

    In notational terms, this means that societies have evolved across the centuries in a preferred historical progression: from monoform (T-only), to biform (T+I), to triform (T+I+M), and now potentially to quadriform (T+I+M+N) types of societies. For example, Russia today is still mostly a biform T+I society — for it lacks much of a true market system, and suppresses NGO networks. Liberal democracies, with their advanced capitalist economies, equate to triform T+I+M societies — indeed, only +M societies can become liberal democracies. Some, notably our United States, are just beginning to evolve into a quadriform T+I+M+N society (though it remains unclear what +N will bring).

    Thus, according to TIMN theory, when matters go well, societies advance by adopting and using these forms properly and in progressive stages. When matters do not go well — for example, if leaders make a mess of the institutional (government) and market forms, or if people cannot find places for themselves in the institutional, market, or emerging network sectors — then many people revert to organizing and behaving in terms of the tribal form, often in dark ways.

    IMPLICATION: Beware the tribalization America


  6. Paul Netman says:

    Thank you very much for this intelligible article that aptly illustrates the mechanisms of social evolution at the family (tribal) level and it relationship to political views.
    My comment as always can be found on my website:
    link to

  7. Sarah Brearley says:

    Hello Lesley
    A bit late to the discussion, perhaps you’ve all gone home now, but i’m really interested to read your article on the Trump vote. I’m currently finishing a Psychology degree and as a research project i’m trying to find out if there are any measurable individual differences towards adaption or conservatism in attitudes towards the Brexit vote.
    There seems to be great emphasis in your article on bottom up influences on social change with the idea that an evolutionary trajectory has been set and will inevitably continue in the direction of greater cultural individuality and diversity. However i’d like to question wether we know enough about Darwinian cultural mechanisms to say that what we are observing is a slowing rather than a correcting? i.e. is an ever increasing trend towards liberal, individualistic cultures viable?

    From my limited reading i wonder if not enough attention has been given to top down effects of cultural evolutionary processes, particularly the idea of the ‘super organism’ behaviour of which you speak. Having studied as a mature correspondence student in isolation i concluded cultural evolution must be happening before i went looking for like minded people, so i have to admit to a rather ‘Galapagos’ conception. (Arguments and evidence against it gratefully received). The foundational assumption is the same as Michael Tomasello’s, for which he presents ample evidence, that at some point in our history mutuality became obligate for survival. My reasoning is if mutuality is an adapted characteristic, like any other, the particular form of that characteristic matters, it’s fitness in the environment.

    Obviously human mutuality or cultures are far less discreet and fixed than genetic organisms, individuals only combine and recombine to behave like a single organism in response to conditions, the fluidity we see in social identity theory or subject positions. However the obligate nature of mutuality in which cognition and culture coevolved suggests these should act together to preserve mutuality before all else, i.e. mutuality or die. Wether the mutuality is viable, or not, is judged not only internally by effects on it’s members, but also externally by it’s mutually coordinated ability to extract resources from the environment and deal with external threats. Hence we demonstrate something like a multiple symbiosis in our mutualities in which both internal and external relationships must be regulated and coordinated.

    Even in a small group the odds that sufficient numbers of genetically selfish individuals can discreetly correctly calculate how they personally should behave to gain maximum advantage and maintain a ‘multiple symbiosis’ seems extremely unlikely, and yet it is obligate. Evidently generation after generation we have made this calculation with sufficient accuracy that we have not only survived through mutual cooperation but become a very successful species. So my ‘Galapogus’ conception is, this is what culture ‘does’, it evolved to solve a quite specific problem, to create sufficient convention to coordinate individual human behaviour towards adapted forms of mutual cooperation. The forms of mutuality which work survive and those that don’t go extinct. My working definition is hence much tighter than most: Culture is an integrated information processing system evolved to ‘run’ across the media of individual cognition and shared representations which regulates the essential interdependence of two or more humans to the mutual benefit of each, within the capacity of the environment (social and/or physical) to support them.

    Mutual benefit doesn’t have to be equal, within the mutuality the form of interdependence only has to be believed to be beneficial. I completely agree that as extended interrelationships increase wealth, the, ‘or die’, option becomes less of a concern to the mutuality, hence attention focuses more on internal balance between the ‘symbions’ – distribution of resources and individual liberties. However if the mutuality does not prove fitness in the environment it will die, even if it’s members devoutly believe it to be fit. The Darwinian processes that regulate the mutuality to the environment should still be in our cognition and culture and liable to activate in conditions which suggest the form of mutuality is not proving fitness. Western cultures are some of the least ecologically sustainable, we can’t afford the lifestyles we live, we’re not demographically sustainable, in fact per head of population we’re a shrinking culture with reducing power and influence and we’re not in any measurable way happier than people in other cultures. We may be failing and the reasons may be unknown to any individual but through cumulative cultural evolutionary processes between us maybe we know. I think we need to consider the possibility, although i tend towards thinking we are just slowing down for a while and an emphasis on top down processes also suggests good reason for this too.

    Like any variation change is risky, and where mutuality is concerned doubly so, because at a certain threshold convention becomes too weak for beneficial mutual cooperation. Further if Alex Mesoudi is right, that what is required for cumulative culture to kick off is a certain density of examples to copy, if examples become too diverse, the mechanism of evolution itself is lost. It seems to me the first rule of a replicating system is to ensure it’s own replication and i wonder if this also is partly what we see as western cultures not only cope with the destabilising effects of connectivity and massive inward migration. Tendencies to not only conservatism but also authoritarianism promote a power balance which favours a reducing population already in power. I understand european Americans are set to become a minority in the near future.

    To sum up it seems to me that having biologically evolved such ‘expensive social equipment’ to be able to exploit the survival advantage of culture, that culture itself is likely to be exploited to the maximum to ensure the brain – culture mechanism survives. Hence it is worth giving some more consideration to the constraints and dilemmas of obligate mutuality for genetically unique individuals and the population requirements for cumulative culture to be maintained.

    I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts if you’re still monitoring this discussion.

    • Lesley says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Sorry to take so long to respond but I have been involved in other things and unable to give your comment enough thought. I have trouble visualizing the “top down” mechanisms you refer to and would like more description please.
      Our observations of humans in modern societies reveals that we are very inclined to form ourselves into groups and categorize ourselves as a member of various groups. We are also very inclined to be influenced by the groups to which we have assigned ourselves. If we see ourselves as being part of a group that is slim and fit, for example, we are so strongly influenced by the belief that we must not eat donuts that we might feel sick at the very idea of eating a donut. Is this the cognition for culture that you describe?

      Maintaining complex culture seems to require mental capacities and motivations that generate this intense “groupiness”. If competition between cultural groups played a role in the evolution of our capacity for complex culture, then it is possible to see how these behaviours evolved. But we are observing people who have spent several generations in a social environment that are very different from those in which these behaviours evolved. Even a mere 200 years ago, most people lived their entire lives in small communities in which they had no real choice of social identity. The family they were born into provided their social identity until they were adopted or married into another family. Their membership in other larger groups was obtained through their family. Their family might have been nested in a clan or a guild.

      Once people are exposed to the wider world, either through travel or mass media, many seem inclined to embrace it. Their children likely embrace it with more alacrity. Yet it seems impossible to be able to negotiate this wider world without a feeling of belonging to a group which helps you establish who you are and how you behave. The “liberal” or “progressive” agenda seems to urge infinite acceptance and tolerance, but of course it doesn’t really.

      You ask, “is an ever-increasing trend towards liberal, individualistic cultures viable?” I think that it can’t be. We may be noticing a particular wobble in the trend now as there is so much interaction between people of different cultures. Many of the people immigrating to the West are from less liberal, individualistic cultures and they are influencing people in the populations they have joined. But rather than become more family-oriented, Westerners have become more nationalistic. Instead of putting the family first, they want to “put America first” or “put Britain first”. I also worry about the continued weakening of what I call “family-promoting norms”. Family responsibilities can be onerous and the rule of family elders now seems terrible to us in the West. But the smooth running of modern societies relies on family-promoting norms. Children are best raised in a strong and stable family. It makes sense that elderly parents should expect help from the children that they raised. Yet our belief in the West that individuals should be able to pursue their own goals and preferences is allowing us to be tolerant of parents who desert their children or abandon their needy parents.

      And we should also ask if modernity is stable. It isn’t. It’s changing all the time. And two trends that have been most stable are, in the long term, likely to be most de-stabilizing. One of these trends is the adoption of low fertility by more and more of the world’s population. The other is the adoption of greater and greater consumption by more and more of the world’s population. The public sees the short-term problems associated with increased consumption and growing population but far more worrying is the situation forecast for the longer term when the world’s population is stable or maybe even declining but the average age of humans is increasing rapidly. Of course, a medical treatment that will slow ageing might be around the corner. We don’t know what will happen. But we do know that current trends cannot continue.