Monday, December 28, 2015

The Science of Conservatism

This article is from last year but it popped up on my facebook page this morning.  Scientists have been trying to figure out if there is a biological imperative to conservatism and it seems they found one from the Pleistocene period 12,000 years ago.  Basically, it seems conservatism is a recessive gene that is a throwback to earlier years as hunters and gatherers.  It allows us to to sense danger and react quickly, which would help explain the gun cult that has arisen in America, if nothing else.

John Hibbing calls it a "negativity bias," which makes some persons more attuned to threatening or disgusting stimuli in their environment.  These persons respond more rapidly to aversive stimuli like spiders than apparently do more liberal respondents, who probably just say, "oh spider."  This experiment would definitely put me in the second group as I've learned to live with spiders and feel no threat at all.

However, my daughter is particularly adverse to spiders, so it seems this recessive gene is something we all are born with and over time become conditioned to be less scared of spiders.  Conservatives don't seem to fully overcome such fears.  Their reaction is probably to crush the spider where my reaction is to put a cup over it and slide a piece of paper under it and take it outside, where it can live in its more natural habitat.  But, spiders like the warmer climate of the house in winter just like humans, so inevitably they find their way back into her room again.

Hibbing did other experiments as well, tracking eye movements and other sensory movements to determine if there was a deeper pattern here.  What emerged is that conservatives tend to prefer a more primal form of society, which Julian Jaynes referred to as a bicameral mind.  This is a mind that likes clear distinctions, structure and order, normally associated with primitive societies that have a very clearly defined societal order.  These persons are driven largely by strong emotive responses such as disgust.  Typically, they don't like change.

Basically, we are talking about persons who retain a child-like view of the world.  More specifically toddlers who react with disgust to things they don't like and become defiant when you persist on making them try it, often sealing their mouths tightly shut, folding their arms across their chest and digging their heels into the ground.  Most of us tend to grow beyond this early, seemingly innate "negativity bias," but some apparently do not.  You can read that four-year old intractability in Donald Trump's face.

Consciousness was the big breakthrough, and Julian Jaynes believed it occurred around the time of the Greeks.  Not to say other civilizations didn't possess it, but it wasn't valued like it was during Greek times when ambiguity came to be more generally accepted and used to create a greater variety of arts, drama and political thought.  Bicameral societies tended to be totalitarian by comparison.

The Greek ideal is at the core of modern democratic society, but conservatives generally try to avoid the ambiguities, preferring a Manichean construct, which grew up about the same time as Christ and spread through the same region.  Manicheans were probably more complex than we give the credit for but their notion of moral dualism is much easier to come to terms with than is say the works of Aristophanes.

Conservatives generally have an us v. them view of the world, whereas liberals tend to have a more all-inclusive view.  In the conservative world, spiders elicit disgust whereas the liberal is more likely to see the spider in a more positive light.  For instance, E.B. White would have to be regarded as a liberal.

It seems Hibbing has hit on something, linking conservative thought back to our much earlier primal fears.  I don't think you necessarily have to be a scientist to figure this out, but it helps in trying to find genes that might attribute to this kind of behavior.  This may allow us to one day excise this gene once and for all, since it really no longer serves much purpose in our society except to hold us back.

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