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Political beliefs both start and end with attitudes toward human nature. The right has long been associated with the Hobbesian view that the natural state of The Evolutionary Biology of Left and Rightmankind is “warre of every man against every man—Bellum omnium contra omnes” (Leviathan, 1651). Material progress is made possible by business competition permitted by a strong military in a dangerous world. There are two bulwarks against our fundamentally evil nature: the US constitution, and salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christians notwithstanding, the broadest authority for this view has seeped down into popular belief from Darwin and Freud.

 Sigmund FreudFreud followed Darwin’s discovery that we are descended from apes with a pessimistic portrayal of our species as highly anxious about the antisocial aggressive and sexual strivings that lie beneath the social veneer of our conscious presentation of ourselves. This “ape-man” view of human nature became more widespread after World War II. Hitler symbolized the hideous beast that lay within us all, represented by Freud’s central concept of the powerful id. Freud’s conception of human nature is epitomized in his celebrated Oedipal complex. The growing boy has sexual desires for his mother causing the unconscious wish to kill his father, in response to which the boy fears retaliation, including castration. As the boy matures, this psychic drama becomes the template for the internal interaction between his rapacious sexuality, which is the ape-like id, and his Old Testament fear of retaliation by those in authority, called the superego.

Even more Hobbesian is Darwin’s credo of the survival of the fittest. After pondering how virtue could have arisen by natural selection in human evolution, his conclusion was that virtuous behavior within groups made them better warriors in the constant struggle for scarce resources between groups. For Darwin, life itself is the result of an unending struggle of too many organisms for too few resources. Natural selection that takes place between warring groups is called “group selection.” Note the word, victorious in his description:

 There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. (Descent of Man-1871).

So, the conservative emphasis on martial virtues rests upon Darwin’s speculation that human hyper-cooperation in general was naturally selected by a long succession of victories in chronically warring groups.  However, in the post-war period, because there was no getting around the connection between the Nazi notion of a master race and Darwin’s idea of group selection, it was banished from the academic reservation. However, the Darwinian gorilla in the academic living room was the obviously superior human capacity for productive cooperation compared to its rudimentary presence in apes; how could it be explained without invoking some form of group selection?

In 1964 William Hamilton demonstrated that insects could be altruistic in proportion to their family relatedness. Richard Dawkins then wrote his best-selling Selfish Gene (1976), with the novel idea that selection occurred at the level of competing genes as opposed to competing individuals (you theoretically would sacrifice yourself for two siblings who have half your genes, and four cousins, etc.).  Leaping from insect to human behavior, “kin selection,” (basically, nepotism) was enthusiastically embraced as explaining primate sociality, and by extension, our own.

In 1971, biologist Robert Trivers spelled out the evolutionary logic of “reciprocal altruism” that, in relatively small, stable groups where everyone has a sense of how reliable everyone else is, it is a “winning strategy” to help people who help you. Since then, kin selection coupled with reciprocal altruism has been accepted as the default explanation for why humans are so much more cooperative than other primates. So all these academic machinations have continued to lend a scientific imprimatur, if not outright authorization of conservative instincts that family ties plus the business ethos of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” form the basis of human cooperation.

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