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Are Liberals and Conservatives Different Species? The Answer is Yes

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If men are from Mars and women from Venus, where do liberals and conservatives come from? They are so befuddled by each other that it is tempting to say different galaxies--or, to employ a biological metaphor, that they are different species. It turns out that the biological metaphor might be surprisingly close to the truth.

Some background: I was trained as an ecologist and have studied real species throughout my career. Go outdoors and you will see hundreds of different species, even in a city environment. Crudely speaking, they coexist by surviving and reproducing in different ways. Each species has a strategy that works in some environments and fails in others. The environmental conditions that enable a given species to survive are crudely described as its niche.

Humanity is a single species in the sense that we can all interbreed with each other (not all at once, please), but we are highly diverse in how we behave. Might human behavioral diversity be understood in the same way as biological diversity? When we crudely refer to different cultures, might they be like different species that survive and reproduce in different ways?

This idea has been kicked around for decades but is achieving new plausibility based on burgeoning interest in human genetic and cultural evolution. The big picture is obvious in retrospect. A lovely article published in the scientific journal Nature titled "Cultural Wealth of Nations" reminds us that when our ancestors left Africa, they diversified culturally to become the equivalent of hundreds of species, inhabiting all climatic zones and eating everything from seeds to whales. There is even a latitudinal gradient of human cultures, with more in the tropics than in the temperate zones, just like a comparable gradient of biological diversity.

OK, maybe Laplanders and New Guinea Highlanders count as separate cultural species, but modern-day conservatives and liberals? You bet, and we don't need to speculate because I'm the kind of ecologist who likes to roll up my sleeves and get dirty with the data. For years I wanted to study people in the same way that I am accustomed to studying beetles and fish--not just in the laboratory, but also "in the field" as they go about their everyday lives. I finally found my chance when I met Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the famous psychologist who is best known for his work on peak psychological experience (Flow) and who pioneered something called the experience sampling method (ESM).

The ESM is simplicity itself. People are outfitted with devices that beep at random times during the day, prompting them to fill out a short questionnaire recording where they are, what they are doing, who they are with, and a checklist of psychological states on a numerical scale. Each beep is like a flash bulb that captures a snapshot of the individual's experience. Mihaly and others have used the ESM on thousands of people to study a variety of subjects. When I met him at a conference and began talking with him about the ESM, I immediately realized that it was the equivalent of field studies on other species. I therefore teamed up with Mihaly to use some of his past studies to ask questions inspired by ecological and evolutionary theory.

We began with a multi-million dollar project that Mihaly had conducted with sociologist Barbara Schneider to examine how young people prepare to enter the work force. Thousands of American high school students had participated nationwide by providing extensive background information and being beeped for a week, for roughly 50 snapshots of their individual experience.

With this as our "field study," we began to think about altruism and other do-good behaviors as a strategy that can succeed in some environments but not others. That story is recounted in a chapter titled "The Ecology of Good and Evil" in my book Evolution for Everyone. Then, with my graduate student Ingrid Storm, we decided to make an even finer comparison between youth belonging to liberal and conservative Protestant denominations.

Get this: Everyone in our sample was an American, a teenager, and belonged to the same major religious tradition of Protestantism. In these respects they were culturally uniform. But some belonged to conservative denominations such as Pentecostal and others to liberal denominations such as Episcopalian. As Ingrid combed through the data, which involved tedious hours in front of the computer, the differences that began to emerge were astounding. It was as if these conservative and liberal religious youth were--different species.

For example, two questions that were asked as part of the background information were "Do you think of yourself as a religious person?" and "In your family, do you express opinions even when they differ?" The more liberals agreed with the first question, the more they agreed with the second. The more conservatives agreed with the first question, the less they agreed with the second. Their religions were pulling them in completely different directions.

Or how about these two items: "In my family, I am the one to decide which friends I can spend time with" and "Do you usually feel stressed?" The liberal kids were stressed when they couldn't make their own decisions and became less so when provided with elbow room. Even at their most mellow, however, the liberals were more stressed than conservatives, who evidently didn't care about having elbow room!

The differences became even more interesting when Ingrid began to analyze the moment-by-moment experience provided by the beeper data. We might be the only people on earth who can report time budgets for liberal and conservative religious youth. Liberals spent about 10% more time alone than conservatives, which is a lot when you consider that these are high-schoolers without a lot of discretionary time on their hands. Even more amazing, the positive mood of conservatives depended upon being in the presence of others. They consistently reported being bored, self-conscious, and lonely when alone and turned on in the presence of others. In stark contrast, the liberals maintained the same mood in the presence and absence of others and even preferred to be alone! Ingrid has kindly allowed me to make her thesis available on my website for those who, like me, enjoy delving into the details.

These kids obviously belonged to the same biological species but their cultures transformed them into different creatures as far as their response to their environment was concerned. The next step toward thinking like an ecologist is not to regard one culture as better than the other, but to regard each as a strategy for survival and reproduction that succeeds under some conditions but not others. What are the niches of liberalism and conservatism, in either their religious or non-religious manifestations?

Liberals place a high value on individual autonomy and decision-making. Individuals are expected to internalize the norms of their culture and do the right thing on a case-by-case basis after thinking about it. This strategy can be highly successful but can also be costly in the time required for information processing, in making mistakes, and in ignoring successful behaviors winnowed by tradition that work without anyone knowing why they work. Conservatives place a high value on obedience to authority. This strategy might stifle creativity but has a number of advantages, such as easing the burden of information processing, retaining successful behaviors winnowed by tradition, and coordinated action. Even liberals sheepishly acknowledge that they are like cats when it comes to herding.

These are just cartoons of cultural species and their niches, but they illustrate the value of thinking of humanity as more like an ecosystem than a single species, thanks to cultural diversification--not only worldwide, but in our midst. Lest this idea be interpreted as a recipe for conflict, every ecologist knows that species exhibit the full range of relationships, from extreme conflict to cozy mutualism. It's even possible that conservatives and liberals need each other, even if they regard each other in adversarial terms.

Who would have thought that my years studying beetles and fish would give me something to say about the human bestiary? It's a jungle out there.