The Evolutionary Mismatch Between Politics and Neuroscience

Why our Stone Age brains struggle with the complexities of modern politics.

  • Politics
    Political observers and philosophers have long lamented that our system is “dysfunctional” or “broken”—especially when they don’t get their way. Perhaps it is. But Shenkman forces us to consider the possibility that these are merely evolutionary growing pains.
    Illustration by Carolyn Lang

  • Politics

When Donald Trump—I know, I know, but stay with me here—began his ascent in the Republican presidential primary field this past summer, political journalists all started wrestling with variations on the same burning question: Just who were these people telling pollsters they would grant this coiffed real-estate scion access to the White House?

To many of the Beltway cognoscenti, Trump’s early success was downright baffling. Republican voters kept hearing that they had the most talented bench of potential presidential candidates from which to choose in generations, and here they were flocking to an economically liberal reality-TV star who helped bankroll Hillary Clinton’s rise to elected office. W, as they say, TF?

Reporters, myself included, boarded planes bound for Trump rallies in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Alabama to pen the Great American Profile of a Trump supporter. Where did they come from? What do they want? Have these people been walking among us this entire time? A flurry of stories followed with near-identical headlines, all in search of an answer, an explanation—anything to help us plumb just what was going on inside the heads of the Trump-besotted GOP electorate.

We may now be closer to an answer. But it’s not the kind of answer you’ll find on cable television, online explainer sites, or the PowerPoints of obscenely-paid political consultants. Instead, evolutionary neuroscience may serve as the most valuable guide to the vagaries of our own political thinking. Timed almost perfectly, Rick Shenkman’s Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2015) seeks to explain our erratic political behavior using a different lens, one that focuses on the role evolution plays in how we choose our leaders.

We are, Shenkman contends, victims of—but not slaves to—a brain that formed during the Pleistocene, an epoch that began about 2.5 million years ago. As modern and sophisticated as we think we have become across the epic reach of  evolutionary time, humans are still prone to leading with their Neanderthal chins—succumbing viscerally and instinctively to stimuli, messages, insults, threats, and compelling stories. This battery of responses represented an admirable adaptation to the challenges of survival as primitive hunter-gatherers, but they don’t function as well within today’s powerful, intricate, and ever-globalizing political systems.

The result, Shenkman argues, has been a politically charged brain lag. “Evolution over millions of years gave us the brain we needed at the time we needed it, not the brain we might need down the road,” Shenkman writes. “There’s a mismatch between the brain we inherited from the Stone Age, when mankind lived in small communities, and the brain we need to deal with the challenges we face in a democratic society consisting of millions of people. That mismatch explains why our instincts so often mislead us in politics.”

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