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Are Liberals Mutants? Human History As Evolutionary History


A change in human culture occurred across Eurasia in the 6th century BCE.  A new form of non-sensory cognition is evident in laws, governmental institutions, moral philosophy, and art.  That change was due to an epigenetic modification in response to human-made environmental pressures.  Assortative mating assured the change was unequally distributed.  Human history records the consequences of that unequal distribution.  One strain of H. sapiens has fostered forms of thought and institutions that contribute to greater civility, while another, which has not benefitted from the adaption to non-sensory cognition, has favored more ancestral thinking modes and forms of life.

Are Liberals Mutants? Human History As Evolutionary History

“. . . endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Charles Darwin

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My thesis is that human cognition in the advanced civil area of the globe from Greece to China changed around the 6th century BCE, and this change in part accounts for the difference between human forms ever since.  The fact that the change is evident from Greece to China suggests that it was an adaptation in response to a shared environmental hazard.  That hazard, I contend, was human created, and it consisted of the danger posed by dependence on large-scale agriculture and the trade that distributed it to large, non-agricultural urban populations.  That environmental hazard made new kinds of cognition necessary, and humans adapted either genetically (hard-wiring) or epigenetically (a change in the operation of the existing genetic hardwiring).  High levels of social class stratification and assortative mating along professional lines meant that the adaptation swept through select populations and was prevented from sweeping through entire populations.  The result was an uneven distribution of the adaptation that endures to the present day.

The major cognitive adaptive ability that emerges in the 6th century BCE has to do with non-sensory cognition, or thinking conducted in the absence of sensory perception.  When we listen, see, touch, and smell, we engage in sensory perception.  When we close our eyes and shut out the world of sounds, sights, and sensations, we engage in non-sensory cognition.  We see things in our minds or we mull over ideas and thoughts; we imagine or we remember.  Those whose minds are trained in this kind of cognition can literally “see” things others cannot.  For example, they can convert complex mathematical symbols on a page into mental representations of forces in the world.  Or they can picture social structure with word tools and without actually “seeing” that invisible structure.  Some other words for this kind of thinking are speculation, imagination, meditation, conceptualization, and reflection.  The new mental ability must have had effects in multiple realms that demanded cognition.  It permitted the development of empathy for others, the ability to imagine their life state and their subjective condition.  The new ability also led to new forms of imaginative art and to new social institutions such as democracy, popular forms of justice, and legal principles such as rights.  New forms of mathematical calculation emerged that greatly enhanced trade and facilitated the evolution of currency.  All of these changes off-set the civilized hazard, the danger of dependence on non-proprietary agriculture and trade to sustain large non-agricultural urban communities that were in place from Greek to China by the 6th century BCE.

This change may have been genetic, but it need not have been.  Environmental pressure may have thrown a switch in some gene or combination of genes that triggered a latent human possibility.  Evolutionary biologists have yet to answer that question, and not being an evolutionary biologist, I will not try to do so.  Nevertheless, promising work is being done along these lines.  Coolidge and Wynn speculate that changes in the parietal lobes of the brain affected such components of non-sensory cognition as long term memory and concept formation (Coolidge and Wynn, 2009).  The second possibility, what is called epigensis, is fruitful because it reconciles cultural explanations of such changes (that they resulted from greater trade, for example) with physical explanations (that they resulted from some genetic modification).  Trade may have fostered an environmental hazard that triggered a genetic modification in humans that made a further advance in non-sensory cognition both possible and necessary.  As a result, institutional changes occurred in human civilization that reflect a need to develop less hazardous, less violent, and less costly modes of interaction.  Those largely have to do with the development of social norms of behavior and with rules and procedures for managing conflict when the norms did not work.  Public theatrical works, especially in Greece, developed as a way of spreading norms and educating group members regarding them.  The creation of norms, legal principles and institutions, and propagandistic art all required a non-sensory imaginative ability.  That ability also permitted members of the civil community to empathize with one another and to imagine others as fellow “citizens.”   Group members could now practice non-violent civility towards people who were neither kin nor clan but with whom one was nevertheless connected through citizenship in a “nation” or “empire,” both non-sensory entities that needed to be imagined in order to be.  These developments lessened the likelihood that a civilized hazard might be triggered by human action (withholding grain from market, for example, or ceasing to trade).  The new normative culture fostered a sense of responsibility towards others that off-set the natural proclivity toward individual organic survival.  Now, with norms and rules in place that fostered greater interactive civility, one’s individual survival could be imagined as a function of group survival.

Contemporary evolutionary theory holds that H. sapiens has not modified significantly since the Pleistocene age some 120,000 years ago (Cosmides and Tooby, 1992).  A universal human nature came into being then and has not modified since.  The Cosmides/Tooby argument makes sense from the perspective of human evolutionary history, but the advent of human civilization has created new post-natural environments and new human-made environmental pressures that seem to have speeded up epigenetic differentiation within the species.  A pacifist former law professor like Barack Obama who believes in universal principles and a rifle-toting, moose-skinning, believer in witches like Sarah Palin are noticeably different.  If culture is not determinant, as Cosmides and Tooby argue in their critique of “social constructionism,” then some physical explanation must be found for such differences.  Cosmides and Tooby convincingly argue that humans could not have changed much genetically in 120,000 years, given how many million it took to get to that point.  Epigenesis offers a compromise by suggesting that different locations (social, cultural, geographic, economic) may trigger changes that, while they leave the basic genome intact, nevertheless modify how it operates and make for genophenotypic variation (Boyd and Richerson, 2005; Fuentes,  2009; Cochran and Harpending, 2009).

The claim that H. sapiens was fixed in time in the Pleistocene as a unified and complete “universal human nature” seems less credible if cultural history is taken into account.  What one sees in that history is a species in the process of differentiation.  If sexual reproduction is not only preservative of a genotypic identity but also generative of departures from the existing genetic paradigm so that adaptation to environmental hazards can occur, then significant phenotypic differences merit closer attention. Paleoanthropologists use the term “forms” for the various hominoids that evolved after Africa in Eurasia, and a similar terminology might be needed to account for the significant differences within H. sapiens.  Differences of form, if they repeat over time in predictable ways, are usually evidence of structural differences.  They are not merely “surface” variations.

Theory is a way of picturing the world.  Some theory models are conceptual and use words.  Others are spatial and use graphic figures.  Others are temporal and distribute events and objects on a time-line. The Cosmides/Tooby model uses two quite common forms of theoretical modelling.  One is temporal, and it assigns a primary and determining role to “universal human nature” or Pleistocene Man that was established in the distant past.  Pleistocene Man is the origin, and all apparent modifications in that original nature are conceived as being derivative and secondary in relation to that primary historical creation moment. Because of the weight and value given the axiomatic origin, subsequent changes in humanity are considered to be of less importance, if they have any weight at all as “evolutionary events.”

The second theoretical model is spatial.  A center is posited that is axiomatic, and around it is drawn a globe whose surface is the assigned place for objects and events that are derivative and secondary.  In this version of evolutionary theory, a “universal human nature” is a center, a structure that transcends accidents such as repetitive differences in opinion between human groups.  They are merely surface events that are of less weight or value. That center transcends phenotypic differences, which are merely secondary and epiphenomenal.

These two theoretical models reduce the likelihood that significance might be found for the study of human evolution in either ongoing differentiation in H. sapiens or human built environmental influences (social construction) that might acts as epigenetic triggers.  Cosmides and Tooby’s critique of the “clean slate” model in the cultural sciences is accurate and welcome, but their theoretical model prevents them from seeing the importance of ongoing genetic differentiation in a human built environment that has come to play a more pronounced role, partly through the epigenetic process of social construction, in the maintenance of human life (Plotkin, 2007).

Different theoretical models assign different weights and values to different physical objects and events, and epigenetically-induced genophenotypic variation is less visible to the Cosmides/Tooby evolutionary theory because of the way that theory assigns value.  The spatial model assigns insufficient weight to “surface” phenomena such as the socially constructive imprinting process that inducts newly minted humans into human civilization by educating them regarding norms, tasks, and roles.  Stored cultural information is transmitted to new entrants through the media, through institutions such as schools, churches, and governments, and through a variety of discourses, from religion to everyday folklore.  If such socially constructive imprinting occurs, it must for a reason, and that reason probably is functional and adaptive.  Social construction aids human survival in a cooperative, human built environment by training inductees in the adaptive norms that have assured group survival by trumping the possibility of a civilized hazard.  It is an on-going epigenetic trigger.  But the Cosmides/Tooby theoretical model cannot picture that necessary relation because it assigns an axiomatic value to one term and a derivative and secondary value to all others.

Similarly, the temporal model, because it makes Pleistocene Man axiomatic in an historical sense, assigns insufficient weight to historical evidence of recent genetic differentiations in post-Pleistocene H. sapiens.  Because the realm of human culture is not taken seriously as a source of evidence because “social construction” has been dismissed as irrelevant, significant differentiations within the supposedly unitary “universal human nature” of Pleistocene Man are discounted.  They are mere fluctuations or historical accidents in a continuous identity that is undisturbed by them.  Genotypic structure is immune to merely phenotypic variation.  According to this model, differences of opinion in cultural history, however repetitive and seemingly structural, should be treated as adventitious disturbances that are secondary in relation to a foundational “nature” that transcends and is untouched by such events.  The proof is not in the pudding of on-going human differentiation but in the formal model.  But such differentiations are real nonetheless and must be accounted for, especially if their repetitive character over time suggests the action of structure.

Newer ways of conducting theoretical thinking have been invented, and it might be of value to evolutionary theory to ask how they might modify the current picture of human evolution.  The new models suggest much is to be gained from abandoning the centuries old distinction between foundation and manifestation, center and surface, structure and historical event, axiological ground and subordinate derivation (Derrida, 1967, 1975, 1976)). The new model of theory construction suggest that we consider each factor, be it “surface” or “center,” “origin” or “derivation,” “nature” or “construction” as being equally important. This level model of theory would allow us to study more closely aspects of the world that we were encouraged by the older spatial and temporal theoretical schemes to ignore.  Supposedly “surface” events such as social construction and supposedly secondary historical accidents such as phenotypic differentiation might be seen as having more significance.

At issue is human cultural history of the past 14,000 years, and the crucial question is whether the changes and differences evident there have any significance for human evolution and for the idea of a universal human nature.  A level theory model would encourage us to ask how the adaptive niche that is the human built civil environment is significant for human evolution even during this short period.

A noticeable cultural transformation, one that seems to due to physiological changes in human cognition, occurs from the seventh to the fifth centuries BCE across Eurasia.  The changes replicate an earlier cognitive change in the Upper Paleolithic along the glaciation line that stretches from Europe to upper Asia.  With large predators killed off by the harsh climate, humans were free to leave defensive groups and expand settlement, develop trade, and most remarkably invent symbolic currency.  This initial mutation probably paved the way for the second major change along the same geographic corridor. (Ofek, 2001)

The changes at that second moment are remarkable both for their quality and for their consistency.  It is as if a similar environmental pressure or hazard placed similar demands on the human population across a wide geographic range that provoked a general adaptive response in those areas where the hazard was most severe (where urban civilization especially was more advanced and where dependence on agricultural trade for survival was most acute).  Given the character of the adaptive response, which consisted of the development of a greater capacity for non-sensory cognition, the hazard was probably one that arose as a result of the interconnected, mutually dependent, and cooperative nature of human civilization.  The major new development in that civilization that might have created a hazard was the shift away from a culture in which everyone was responsible for supplying their own food to a culture in which people relied on others and on a network of trade to supply sustenance.  Individual survival suddenly became dependent on a more complex social system.  To be maintained, that system demanded higher order cognitive abilities in at least some of the population, those charged with system maintenance.  Because system maintenance required a consistent differentiation of tasks, the new kinds of cognition would have been associated with social marking and with the category-making and concept-formation ability that accompanies such marking, according to Coolidge and Wynn.  The new cognitive abilities allowed for greater social stratification through the development of a social semiotic system of class demarcation, and such stratification lessened the civilized hazard by assuring all tasks were assigned and performed.

The adaptive response to the hazard created by human civilization seems to have had to do with a change in human cognitive abilities pertaining to non-sensory cognition, or the ability to think in the absence of sense data. Non-sensory cognition is preferable for my purposes here to “general intelligence” or “fluid intelligence” for understanding cultural history because it links the various individual cognitive changes that make up the larger change of the first millennium (Mithen, 1994).  Such cognition has since Plato been a concern of philosophy; it consists of thinking about ideas that are not tangible things in the physical world.  Such cognition also allows humans to imagine fictions, to picture deities as well as a spirit world, to think recursively in categories, to imagine Euclidian space, and to make laws based on intangible principles such as justice.  Importantly, of course, it also allows them to make marks on wood, stone, or paper that signify “ideas.”  While humans clearly had a capacity for non-sensory cognition prior to the first millennium BCE, a major advance, probably with genetic roots fostered by the genetic mixing brought about by trade along the metal routes, occurs across Eurasia around 600 BCE.

At that point, one begins to see evidence of a significantly new form of non-sensory cognition.  In Greece, the laws of Solon in the 6th century BCE differentiate the Homeric culture that celebrated martial virtues from the Aristotelian culture that encouraged science and the building of an ideal civil political community.  For the first time, a philosopher, Plato, discusses a non-sensory realm of ideation and makes it the centerpiece of his thinking, while the first efforts at mathematics (especially in fields such as geometry that require non-sensory ideation) begin to appear in the works of Pythagoras and others.  Democratic forms of social organization for the first time supersede autocracy, and they demand oratory which is characterized by the ability to use long term memory to summon ideas easily in speeches made to a gathered population.  New forms of representational art emerge that evidence a new multi-dimensional ability in regard to perception and imagination (Brener, 2010).  In the other major areas of human population throughout Eurasia at the same time, similar transformations occurred.  In India, in the 6th century BCE, an era of regional imperial warfare coupled to a mythological literary tradition gives way to a new shramanic philosophy that emphasizes the cultivation of higher order cognitive abilities and the renunciation of the instinctive animal urge toward material goods.  Gautama Buddha’s call to renounce physical desire and the material world for the spiritual (or non-sensory) is a prescription for restraining animal urges and appetites for the sake of the cultivation of non-sensory cognition favorable to greater civility and cooperation.  The Upanishads, which were first attempts at philosophy, were written at this time as well.  In Persia, Cyrus (600 BCE-529 BCE) created one of the first governmental administrative systems that was meant to be beneficial to, rather than repressive of, its subjects, abolished forced labor, and advanced the idea of human rights as well as the ideal of religious tolerance.  At the same time, Confucius (551-479 BCE) gave China a new way of thinking that would seem to reflect adaptive non-sensory cognition at work.  Confucianism sought to infuse public institutions with universal moral principles such as justice, promoted the ideal of personal virtue attained through self-control, fostered a culture of laws, and infused government with the meritocratic ideal that replaced group affiliation as a standard of advancement with evidence of higher order cognitive abilities.

That Greek, Chinese, Persian, and Indian civilizations would all undergo the same kind of cultural change that required similar, if not the same, changes in cognitive ability suggests that the development of human civilization was making possible genetic responses across Eurasia to a similar environmental pressure–the civilized hazard brought about by greater density of population, greater urbanization, greater dependence on trade and purchased food, and a greater need for civil regulation if human civilizations were to survive.  With the replacement of agriculture by city dwelling, humans inadvertently created an environmental hazard of potentially genocidal proportions in the form of a possible failure of the surplus food supply for those not involved directly with agriculture.  Historian Joyce Appleby notes that “Traditional societies around the globe were built on the bedrock of scarcity, above all the scarcity of food. . . . And because farming often didn’t even succeed in [feeding the whole population], there were famines.  All but the very wealthy tightened their belts every year in the months before crops came in. . . . The effects of economic vulnerability radiated throughout old societies, encouraging suspicion and superstitions as well as justifying the conspicuous authority of monarchs, priests, landlords, and fathers.  Maintaining order . . . was paramount when the lives of so man people were at risk.” [i] The newer forms of civility made possible by what was apparently a new, more advanced form of non-sensory cognition were an adaptive way of addressing that danger.  With categories was born the allocation of tasks and roles along social class lines to assure the survival of the group.

The ability to think in the absence of sense data existed in a more rudimentary form before this moment in time. Religion antedates the new forms of law, philosophy, science, and literature that flower in the 6th and 5th centuries, but religion is all three rolled into one, the product of an early cognitive adaptation that had not yet acquired the ability to differentiate between the functions of non-sensory cognition such as conceptualization, empathy, self-regulation, and imagination.  Moreover, religion was probably a misinterpretation of this new cognitive ability.  Once humans became able to think in the absence of sense data, they had within themselves a new mental realm that was initially misinterpreted as “spirit” or “soul”.  And its products, before ideation could be trained into philosophy and science, were, I would suggest, mistaken for “Gods.”

Along with religion and early legal institutions, the strongest evidence of genetic change related to non-sensory cognition prior to the 6th century BCE is the emergence of writing and of legal institutions.  Writing requires a non-sensory cognitive ability.  One must be able to look at or sense marks on wax, paper, or some other material, and see instead non-sensory ideas.  Law operates in a similar way.  It consists of both non-sensory ideas such as fairness, equity, and justice as well as tangible institutions such as courts and written rules that one can sense with one’s eyes and ears.  Without the cognitive ability that permits sensory data to be “read” as non-sensory ideas or principles, early humans could not look at a man in court in a seat of authority and see the idea of justice at work.  Yet they had to if indeed justice–self-restraint based on ideas rather than physical coercion–was to work.

The genetic or epigenetic change that gave rise to non-sensory cognition thus served an important function in large communities of the kind made possible by surplus-generating agriculture.  It permitted legal institutions to come into being because it allowed physical things such as courts to embody non-sensory ideas such as justice.  And because ideas permitted thinking in broad formal categories such as “citizen,” it fostered the notion of universality, which meant that all were subject to impartial rules and principles that applied equally to everyone.  Social order needed no longer to be maintained through tribal alliances, clan loyalty, dominance behavior, the control of resources, physical coercion, and intimidating violence.  The ability to create laws that applied to an entire community diminished the importance of territory and of territorial defense between human groups.  The primitive tendency to side with one’s territorial allies against one’s territorial enemies could be overcome by training members of the group to adhere to norms and principles—ideas with universal applicability—that applied to friend and foe alike, regardless of where they lived.  One’s enemy was the same as one’s friend in the eyes of the principles undergirding the law.  Non-sensory cognition and the suppression of territorial and tribal violence thus would have evolved together.

Such non-sensory cognition also probably played a role in diminishing interpersonal violence.  It required that one give up immediate perception in favor of an internal mental process.  Such suspension allows affect to be regulated.  Contemporary psychology suggests an ability to construct non-sensory mental representations of varied complexity and nuance is essential to the formation of a separate self, to the development of an objective sense of the world, and to the regulation of affect (Fairbairn, 1954; Mahler, 1968; Blatt, 1997; Auerbach, 2005). Mental representations range from fruzzy to clear, fantasy filled to realistic, monolithic to highly differentiated.  On the one end of the range are images that are typological, lacking in detail, and simple, and on the other end are mental representations that are highly differentiated, realistically detailed, and complex.  Imagine the difference between a mythological story about Zeus and Poseidon and another about a French housewife stuck in a small town with a boorish husband who longs for the high life and has an affair with a local aristocrat.  One story–one mental representation, if you will–will be painted in simple brush strokes; characters will have usually one dominant trait; actions will be limited and lack nuance of motive and complexity of effect; the tone will be one of exaltation and fear.  In the other story, characters will be portrayed as having complex motives; their life situations will be described in rich realist detail; the characters will be portrayed with irony and empathetic analysis.  Depending on where they fall on this spectrum of cognitive abilities, humans vary in their ability to form separate identities that are not dependent on fusion with the object world or with the social group.  They vary in their ability to see the world objectively and clearly.  They also vary in their ability to regulate affect.  In human children, mental representations allow stresses such as separation from care-givers to be tolerated and accepted.  In the maturation process from child to adult, the God-like physical presence of the mother is replaced by a God-like mental representation of the mother that allows behavior to be inhibited and affect regulated.  Rage and fear, the bases of violence, can be muted and transformed into other, more temperate feelings.  It is likely that self-regulation became possible once mental representation, based in non-sensory cognition, was possible.  And once self-regulation was possible, efficient civilizations were possible.  One did not need to exert force to gain compliance with community norms.  Citizens did not need to be told what to do because they could tell themselves what to do.  Civility, living by shared rules that are internalized, was quite literally “imaginable.”

Advanced cognition in the form of complex realist mental representations would also favor the development of non-authoritarian civil societies of the kind that emerged in 6th and 5th century BCE Greece.  Such cognition encourages a sense of individuation and of objectivity in regard to the world.  The non-sensory cognitive ability aids the development of a separate self, one that has achieved a mature distance from its surrounding world and readily takes that world as its object of knowledge.  Such a cognitive ability is therefore conducive to science.  But not all mental representational abilities in modern humans are the same, and in all likelihood, the same was true of our ancestors.  Some live with mythological mental representations while others live with realist detail.  Realistic mental representation assumes a more successful separation from one’s object world.  One sees it better because it has become more of an object for the self through the separation of the self from the object world that mental representation brings about.  The presence of the mental representation means the absence of the literal thing, and it necessarily implies an ability to tolerate the thing or object’s absence; it implies self-regulation.  Individuals who live in a fused relationship with their object world and do not separate from it successfully also do not develop a capacity for complex, realist, detailed mental representations, and they are frequently associated with an inability to control affect.  They instead rely on mental representations that more resemble mythology and that contain exalted characters (great leaders), extreme emotions (fear of strangers, rage against perceived enemies), and ideals of fused communities in which individual difference is dissolved (the nation, the ethnicity, the patria or homeland).  If this kind of mental representing is more proximate in some ways to how early humans must have thought (mythology, territoriality, tribal identity), the kind of mental representing that is more complex, detailed, and realist would seem to lead eventually to science and to an ideal of human community as an embodiment of ideas that possess complexity, reach, nuance, and realistic applicability.  Not surprisingly, someone like Cyrus is associated both with advanced legal system building and tolerance for diversity.

Predictably, in ancestral human culture, mythological thinking accompanies undifferentiated tribal and clan social forms.  Non-sensory cognition that is more realistic and differentiated, in contrast, probably made possible the kind of internally differentiated and articulated democratic civility of 6th and 5th century BCE Greece, a culture characterized by significant advances in science, law, and philosophy of a kind reflective of more advanced cognitive abilities and a culture in which individual identity was a prominent feature of civil life.  We know who Demosthenes was, but we have no clue who the articulate spokesmen of earlier Greek clans were because there probably weren’t any.  If advanced non-sensory cognition fosters separation from one’s ambient object world and the assumption of a stance of greater objectivity towards it, the kind of cognition it supersedes, what might be called ancestral sensory cognition, is more likely to merge self and world, to treat objects animistically (as in religion) and to favor fused social forms in which the self’s identity is indistinguishable from group identity.

The advance in non-sensory cognition registers in the writing of the Greek Enlightenment from 800 to 400 BCE.  While Homer may speak of Gods, what distinguishes his writing is the near-scientific description of bodies and feelings and actions, a literary mode quite different from the simple broad strokes of the stories of Greek mythology.  Moreover, for the first time, a story has a clear pedagogical value of promoting norms.  Plato and Aristotle are constantly reaching for greater and greater detail in their philosophic analyses.  And Sophocles was a master of emotional and existential complexity that was proximate to actual human experience, and his plays are also inadvertent dramas of evolution in that they picture conflicts between ancestral sensory cognition and the new non-sensory cognition that begins to appear in full flower in the West for the first time in the Greek Enlightenment.  The idea of fate is a projection of lower order mental representational abilities premised on fusion with one’s object world rather than a separation from it.  In Sophocles’ plays, the tension is often between a sense of fate premised on simple mental representational abilities and a sense of individual responsibility that arises from a more realistic representation of the world.[ii]

Early human history suggests that the genetic change that gave rise to this more advanced form of non-sensory cognition was differentially distributed. The fact of the regular slaughter of adversarial populations during this time suggests that the quelling of violent urges by non-sensory cognition was not universal.  The gene flow initiated by it did not sweep through the human population.  In all probability, it was blocked and redirected by the strict social stratifications of societies of that period.  Class and caste barriers that promote assortative mating stood in the way of genetic sweeping.  Scribes in all early societies were an elite caste that was in certain instances deliberately self-reproductive.  They married amongst themselves, and fathers and sons succeeded each other in their posts.  Usually, they were distinguished from social strata assigned more practical tasks, such as engineering, law, agriculture, trade, and warfare. As with Ashkenazi Jews charged with doing complex calculations in the absence of zero, so also in the social classes charged with running such institutions as complex legal systems, assortative reproduction probably led to genetic strains that reproduced and preserved caste-specific genetic differentiations.  (Brahmins remain a separate genetic strain in India today, one that bears more noticeable European-originated genetic admixture. (Barnshad, 2001))  In Rome plebs and patricians would not have married, and throughout the Middle Ages, severe class differences persisted.  It is only in very recent experience that flux and flexibility have come to characterize human mating behavior.  And it is probably noteworthy that along with the scientific, industrial, capitalist, and philosophic revolutions of the 18th century came as well the domestic revolution so evident in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that brought flexibility and personal freedom to mating practices.

Another reason genetic sweeping may have been blocked is civility.  In the zone of civil protection that non-sensory cognition made possible, some could forsake predatory defensiveness, distrust, and violence for the sake of behavior guided by adaptive forms of non-sensory cognition without fearing extinction.  But equally, those lodged in an ancestral cognitive disposition would not have failed a fitness test and passed out of existence so long as they were willing to play by the new rules.  No replacement occurred.  Non-sensory cognition made possible a level of civility that prevented the natural culling of populations that usually occurred when a significant adaptation made greater fitness possible.  In this instance, the fitness made possible was protective of all.  It consisted of an ability to elaborate laws that made large pacified communities imaginable.  In the peaceful and non-violent communities adaptive humans designed, all survived, including those who had not benefitted from the adaptive change.  With the emergence of civil institutions, nature’s harshest harvesting laws ceased to function.  An agricultural surplus, made possible by organizational forms fostered by non-sensory cognition, protected everyone from nature’s random violence.  What this meant as well, however, was that human dispositions that were more ancestral continued to exist.[iii] And much of subsequent human history has been about that problem.

What might that ancestral human disposition have been like, one that did not benefit from fully developed non-sensory cognitive capacities?  And what kind of behavior might s/he have engaged in as a result?  A world without large protective human communities was in all likelihood a world driven by raw survival imperatives, characterized by inter-group violence, and populated by groups organized, like adjacent primate species such as chimpanzees, around opportunistic alliances, dominance behavior, the lop-sided control of resources, hierarchy, and subordination.  Cognition in such a context was probably limited by those imperatives and probably reflected their pressure.  It primarily addressed the self’s need for safety and security. Such cognition would be defensive, devious, expedient, and absolutist.  And it was predominantly sensory.

Defensiveness in a predatory context obliges one to monitor one’s immediate environment carefully for signs of danger, and it therefore favors highly sensory modes of perception over non-sensory ones that require one to relinquish one’s self-protective perceptual grasp on what is immediately before one’s eyes, ears, and nose.  As a result, such sensory cognition is less equipped to use the mind’s speculative capacities to develop formal or abstract non-sensory models of the world.  Such cognition is thus less capable of affect regulation.  Violence, rather than verbal negotiation, will be more likely as a way of dealing with adversaries.  Such intensely sensory cognition would also be less inclined to embrace a universal principle and to submit its urges to the control of formal regulation.  The possibility that one sacrifices one’s immediate survival chances for an idea that applies equally to all and that restrains one’s self-interest for the good of others would be both alien and dangerous. The consistent hostility in the history of the West to speculative cognition and to the constraints on pure freedom of action that it often mandates may result from the fact that it is associated with the possibility of letting go of the security and safety sensory perception affords.

What is at stake is the fear of death, a fear still felt by some human groups more so than others.  Jost, et al, found that self-described ideological conservatives in the U.S. fear death more than liberals (Jost, 2003).   There is a noticeable difference in cognitive style between the two groups.  Conservatives prefer ideas, actions, values, and institutions that assure survival and might be said to stave off a greater fear of death.  They prefer mythology and fusion over realism and science, and they tend toward highly regimented forms of social organization, expedient and opportunistic alliances, dominance behavior, social control through the accumulation of resources, and hierarchy-preserving behaviors designed to assure a greater rate of survival in a predatory context than liberal values such as tolerance, respect, empathy, and civility.  They prefer violent to peaceful solutions to conflict, and they abandon principles that impose restraint on defensive behavior (such as rules against torture) when self-defensive expediency and self-interest demand.  Liberals, in contrast, seem more capable of non-sensory thinking that posits formal or ideal entities such as “human rights” or “universal justice” that are not real sensory objects.  Allowing such non-sensory principles to dominate one’s mental life obliges one to sacrifice a sense of safety afforded by a well-monitored sensory world.  It requires a diminished fear of death.  If the palpable presence of the world in sensory perception confirms one’s safety, then the absence of it in non-sensory cognition requires one to accept the possibility of death when one engages in it.  This may account for the intense animus against abstract universal principles in conservative human groups.

The preference for sensory as opposed to non-sensory cognition that arises from a yearning for safety in a predatory context also leads to a need for cognitive absolutes and for cognitive control.  Absolutist forms of religion and absolutist state forms probably characterize early humanity for this reason.  Before the emergence of non-sensory cognition provided safety guarantees in the form of laws and civil institutions, absolute security and certain knowledge of the kind early state forms and early religion afforded was a way of controlling one’s environment, of assuring that one would not be vulnerable to violence because others were subject to harsh rules that made such violence too costly.

Purely sensory cognition would also be less capable of the empathy that life in civil communities would require.  Empathy means imagining others as subjects like oneself.  Empathy is a non-sensory cognitive capacity because it requires that one leave the security of one’s immediate sensory field of perception in order to imaginatively inhabit another’s perspective. Such empathy is a sign of weakness in a predatory context; it leaves one vulnerable and subtracts from the aggressive posture toward potential adversaries that one must always maintain in order to survive. To imagine someone else’s point of view, to empathetically inhabit their interests and needs, is to betray one’s own most powerful survival urges.

After the Greek Enlightenment of the 6th and 5th century BCE, those armed with more advanced non-sensory cognitive abilities seemed to dominate southern European life for several centuries, until the first century BCE.  Early Rome inherited the principles and practices of Greek democracy.  But the advances in civility did not take hold, an indicator, perhaps, of how difficult it is for a new trait to sweep through an entire class-stratified population in a short period of time, and eventually, violence triumphed over civility.  The Roman republic ends in civil war in the first century BCE and the rise to power of emperors who rule for nearly six centuries before succumbing to invasions by Germanic tribes.  The change from fifth century BCE Greece to fifth century CE Rome is a shift from democracy to authoritarianism and from civil legality to brutality and plunder.  It is as if evolution shifted into reverse.  If the positive developments in human civilization that seem attributable to a new kind of cognition were remarkable in the Greek Enlightenment, no less remarkable is their disappearance in a thousand year span of time.

In isolated Greek city states, assortative mating maintained genetic consistency of the sort that underwrote political democracy by making such non-sensory cognitive capacities as thinking in concepts and speaking from memory possible and culturally retainable.[iv] But once Greece gave way to Rome, a highly unstable empire with much migration and no consistent, isolated reproductive pattern, the Greek moment passes.  In early Rome an effort is made to preserve the democratic institutions created in Greece, but Rome was a magnet for wealth through conquest, and the high stakes fostered both lofty ambitions and low desires.  It must have been a tempting situation for anyone with an ancestral disposition.  There were few incentives to suspend urges and regulate affect for the sake of universal principles.  It was a case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma without any prisoners.  In the first century BCE, democracy was cast aside in favor of autocracy, and a several centuries long era of plunder and corruption began.  Simone Weil notes that what distinguishes Rome from Greece is the coming to dominance of a sensibility that might be called ancestral and sensory as opposed to adaptive and non-sensory (Weil, 2005).  Oriented toward violent defensiveness and the control of resources for the sake of domination, it eschewed non-sensory principles in favor of a brutal expediency whose goal was the subordination of others through the control of resources.  Authoritarianism superseded democracy, unempathetic violence replaced oratory in public spectacles, and propaganda replaced nuanced, realist forms of literary representation.  The difference between Demosthenes and Cicero is the difference between principle and expediency, and the difference between Homer and Vergil is the difference between a finely analytic mind devoted to the expounding of civil principles and a hack propagandist for a corrupt imperial regime who was willing to sell his skills to serve the interests of those in power.

In Rome, despite its fate, one nevertheless sees evidence of non-sensory cognition at work.  Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, two Roman Tribunes of the second century CE, were among the most intellectually gifted men of their era (Stockton, 1979). Their mother was a famous intellectual of Greek origin who oversaw their educational training by Greek teachers.  The brothers were noteworthy for their skills at diplomacy and legislation.  As political leaders, the brothers sought to reintroduce Greek principles of democracy to Roman life and proposed ways to make the distribution of property to army veterans more equitable.  Large property owners who stood to lose if the new principles of distribution were put into effect murdered each one of them before their reforms could be implemented.  We might interpret such events as a difference of opinion untouched by genetic variation, but when the difference is between those with a capacity for principled, non-sensory thinking on the one hand and those characterized by unregulated impulses normally held in check by such cognition on the other, one has reason to speculate that the clash has genetic or epigenetic roots.

With the collapse of Rome in the fifth century CE, western genetic history also seems to change. Economic historians use the term “simplification” to describe the socio-economic system that succeeds Rome in western Europe, one in which craft skills disappear and people forget how even to use money for trade (a sign of the absence of symbolic thinking abilities) (Ward-Perkins, 2005). The word “simplification,” given what did happen, has an unfortunate intellectual resonance as well.  It is as if the simple-minded and leaden-headed took over, and those with more advanced cognitive abilities are driven out of public life by the brutality and violence of their fellows.  Very little of any genetic evidence is available to sustain an hypothesis like that, but phenotypic behavior can be taken as an index, and by all accounts, the Germanic tribes that displaced the Romans were more given to physical activity than intellectual life, practiced antique forms of religion that included human sacrifice, cultivated martial violence in men as well as women in a manner that was more Homeric than Aristotelian, and had trouble adapting to basic civilized rules such as the one barring incest.  Even as late a figure as Charlemagne kept his daughters “close” throughout their lives. That the ability to use imagination to engage in detailed and realist artistic representation also disappears for eight centuries is a further indicator that a genetically based cognitive ability was either lost or shunted aside by people who did not possess such abilities but whose drive for dominance assured that their disposition would set the tone of the era and of their societies.

The ancestral sensibility that was displaced temporarily in Greece by those possessed of non-sensory cognition returned to dominance over public affairs, largely as a result of a population shift that drew in new human groups from northern and central Europe.  But where then did those benefitting from the genetic modification that gave rise to advanced non-sensory cognition in the Mediterranean basin go?  They did not disappear or get culled because the adaptation they bore shows up later in the Renaissance and bequeathes us modern, normative, rule-bound civilization.  In all likelihood, after the collapse of Rome and the beginning of the era of tribal rule, they entered religious life and became the great intellectuals of the Roman Church from Origen, Augustine, and Gregory to Copernicus, Occam, and Aquinas.  Religion was a realm where matters pertaining to non-sensory cognition could be explored and discussed, often with great analytic detail, as Aquinas proved. While in the contemporary era, belief and interest in spirituality has come to seem alien to the scientific sensibility, during the Middle Ages, spirituality was an intellectual realm that allowed those possessed of non-sensory cognitive abilities, even ones we might now consider scientific, to thrive.  It had a different meaning and social function then than it has now.  Abbeys and monasteries were the places where minds capable of science were preserved, and that may explain why the writings of Occam and Aquinas seem like early science, even though they are about religious matters.

Feudalism, the economic and social system that obtains from 500 to 1600 CE, was a system of dominance and subordination carried out by force and centering on the over-accumulation of resources as a means of maintaining control within the group.  It might also be characterized as a particular kind of cognitive reign. If the ability to develop highly differentiated and complex mental representations is linked to advanced forms of democratic civility in the Greek experience, a coming-to-dominance of ancestral sensory forms of mental representation in public life during the Middle Ages brought with it a diminishment of civility and a growth of the absolutist social forms that the ancestral disposition favors, forms that assured that society would be organized not around non-sensory principles such as justice or democracy but around dominance, hierarchy, defensiveness, violence, and resource control.  In art and literature, the Middle Ages witnesses a return to forms that are neo-mythological in their simplicity.  It is interesting that when Europe begins to “wake up” around 1300 CE, one of the first signs of awakening is new, more realist painting forms, such as those practiced by the Lorenzetti brothers in Siena and of literary works such as Cervantes Don Quijote that mock medieval mythology in a realist mode.

The case of the suppression of Catharism in southern France in the 13th century is instructive regarding both the ancestral character of cognition prevalent in the dominant social group at the time and the persistence of the disposition evident in 5th century Greece.  With economic and social simplification after 500 CE, the Roman Catholic Church asserted its intellectual dominance in Europe.  Early discussions amongst Jews and Christians after the death of Jesus Christ reflect a rich mix of ideas, many of which, such as Gnosticism, clearly bear the mark of non-sensory cognition.  But those ideas were expunged from the New Testament of the Roman Church (Pagels, 1979). And Ireneus in the second century began the Church’s assault on the Gnostics, declaring their ideas heterodox and the ideas sanctioned by the authority of the Church orthodox.  With the Crusades from 1100 CE to 1300 CE, however, an opening eastward occurred that led to the rediscovery of Greek culture and of Greek books.  Gnostic ideas once again became popular in Western Europe, and were spread by Greek merchants.  Those ideas emphasize a distinction between a corrupt material world and a non-sensory spiritual one.  Gnostics divide humans into groups, with the lowest being those absorbed in material concerns and the highest or most spiritual being those who have absolved themselves of such concerns (by among other things renouncing material possessions and taking vows of chastity).  It is as if the Gnostics were observing humanity and noticing the division between those with an adaptive ability for advanced non-sensory cognition (misconstrued as spirituality) and those without that genetic benefit whose snouts were firmly in the trough and whose hands firmly grasped their swords.

The Cathars were an aristocratic caste in southern France in the 13th century who, like the Gnostics, believed the material world was a corrupt realm of power.  They were offended by the opulence of the Roman Catholic Church and saw it as an example of corruption.  The Cathars believed as well in a more pure spiritual realm of forms or principles such as love and peace.  In this, they resembled the philosophers of the Greek Enlightenment.  They developed a sophisticated culture characterized by sung poetry.  They opposed war because it was a manifestation of power rather than of love.  The Cathars believed in universal principles associated with restraint placed on animal urges, and such restraint is linked in their lives and their group philosophy to the ability to work with mental images or ideas that embody universal principles.

Catharism might be understood, therefore, not on its own terms as a spiritual or religious movement but rather as a manifestation of non-sensory cognition at work in human affairs, generating values, ideals, principles, and norms that restrained violence and furthered cooperative civility.  One could even hypothesize that its spread within Provence and Languedoc was due as much to cultural transmission as to genetic sweeping through a geographically isolated population over a period of centuries.  The Cathars represented a serious challenge both to those in power in the Roman Catholic Church and to the ancestral sensibility they embodied.  The Cathars’ opposition to wealth, power, and materiality was in fact a statement against the motives and practices of that ancestral sensibility as it was embodied in those with power generally in Western Europe at the time.  The Cathars, predictably perhaps, were violently suppressed by the Catholic Church in alliance with Frankish lords who were promised their lands and wealth in return for brutally eliminating the heresy and torturing and murdering many of its advocates. (de Rougemont, 1956).

Catharism is significant because it prefigures the Renaissance, the cultural, intellectual, scientific, and political revolutions set going in Europe (1300-1700) by the Crusades.  But the resurgence in learning also can be understood in terms of the resurgence and spread of advanced non-sensory cognitive abilities.  Once again, Greece plays a prominent role in the cultural transformation.  Genetically, Greek influence was probably significant since the Renaissance originates in an Italy saturated with Greek genetic mixing.  Aquinas, for example, comes from a region of Italy heavily populated by Greeks over the centuries.  But it was the rediscovery of ancient Greek texts, both religious and secular, that sparked the new emphasis on learning and science in Western Europe.  The rediscovery of the Greek Bible would lead eventually to the Protestant Reformation, which shifted emphasis in religious matters away from domination, subordination, and obedience of institutional authority towards a mode of cognition that emphasized separate individuality, private reflection, and spiritual purity (in contradistinction to the palpable material corruption of the Roman Church).

Francesco Petrarca, the person credited with initiating the Renaissance both in his writings and through his purchase of Greek texts for translation, is one of the first indicators of the reappearance in public life of people possessed of advanced forms of non-sensory cognition.  In his famous climb of Mont Ventoux, he turns from the world and focuses instead on his mental processes, which seem to give him access to a non-sensory kind of thinking associated with the regulation of affect:  “I was thus dividing my thoughts, now turning my attention to some terrestrial object that lay before me, now raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes . . . How earnestly should we strive, not to stand on mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses.”[v] If non-sensory cognition worked under the guise of religion to encourage self-control and the regulation of pre-civil affect in the religious writings of the Medieval Period, it began to operate as secular philosophy to encourage the elaboration of rational principles that function to further the building of more civil institutions during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

At this point in time, laws between nations began to be codified, a sign of a greater sense of international cooperation.  Republics such as Venice, which presupposed an educated populace, once again became popular modes of government as they had been in Greece and early Rome.  Feudal authoritarianism still persisted, but modern, more scientific divisions between administration, adjudication, and deliberation began to emerge as did universities such as Paris and Bologna devoted to the new divisions of knowledge known as the Trivium, and the first Parliaments appear, with the first coming in the British Isles, whose inhabitants, isolated like the 6th century BCE Greeks, would soon propel the scientific, industrial, and capitalist revolutions of the 18th century. From the Civil War in England in the mid-17th century to the revolutions in France and America in the late 18th, a different way of thinking began to promote universal principles such as equality, liberty, and democracy.  A major ideological and political division emerges at this point in time between those who favored simple sensory cognition, the supersession of custom over science, and an ideal of social hierarchy such as Irish conservative Edmund Burke on the one hand and those like liberal Thomas Paine on the other who evidenced non-sensory cognitive abilities, favored science over custom, and argued for universal principles that guaranteed the well-being of all.

It can perhaps be taken as a sign of the spread of advanced forms of non-sensory cognition in western Europe that more and more thinkers turn to the kind of philosophic and political thinking that emphasizes the separation of the individual from the fused feudal group and the need for objective knowledge, especially in the form of science.[vi] If contemporary psychology is right regarding the role of mental representations, we should not be surprised to see the simultaneous development of thinking about individual rights and of more realist and detailed thinking about the objective world considered as something separate from the self.  It was as if John Locke was born to confirm that particular hypothesis.  One of the first modern thinkers to propose a political theory founded on principles such as individual rights, Locke was also a scientist who argued for basing knowledge on empirical observation.  He astutely noticed that authoritarian thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes linked dogmatic forms of knowledge and absolutist political institutions.  One of the major discoveries of the period was that how we think about the world and how we organize institutions and social forms are crucially linked.  In a way that antedates modern evolutionary psychology, Locke and others, from Spinoza to Hegel, noticed that epistemology is ontology, how one thinks is materially connected to how one organizes human life.

The 18th century is crucial because of the congruence in western Europe of significant advances in thinking ability and in human institutions.  Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel explored the implications of non-sensory cognition both in itself and for civil institution-building, while thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson actually undertook the work of interlacing the new cognitive advances with new political forms of life.  Cognition is physiological, and the important common ingredient in the great changes of the era is new thinking abilities and new ideas that infuse human physical reality, reshaping moral emotions, the psychology of expectation, institutions such as law and economics, practices such as scientific reasoning and industrial invention, and the like.  Modern human civilization is invented at this time, its basic forms and institutions established.  The era resembles in some respects the Eurasian Enlightenment of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE.  What is remarkable about the era is that non-sensory cognition itself becomes a topic of discussion and an object of philosophic reflection, and philosophers like Immanuel Kant link it to the need to develop better political and legal institutions. Kant’s distinction between Vernunft or empirical cognition and Verstand or reason exercised apart from sense perception could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of non-sensory cognition.  For Kant, Verstand is the basis for the universality that underwrites modern liberal notions of ethics and law that universalize rights.

It is in regard to the great changes wrought by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution that one encounters for the first time widespread antipathy to speculative reasoning and non-sensory cognition.  It is as if those who had benefitted from social institutions organized around domination, subordination, and the control of resources finally recognized, after the success of the French Revolution, the danger of non-sensory cognition and the threat it posed to their interests.  In Burke’s writing one encounters an attack on speculation or theory, and in the conservative philosopher David Hume, one finds an attempt to undermine, using skeptical argumentation, Locke’s idea that one can construct universals from particulars and thereby secure a material and empirical basis for ideals of just government.  The era of conservative reaction and monarchial retrenchment that followed the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 was accompanied by a concurrent anti-speculative turn in discussions of cognition in western Europe.  Positivism sought to limit acceptable or legitimate knowledge to sense data arrived at only through prescribed methods.  The speculative methods that produced the ideal principles of the Enlightenment were rejected.  As a result, those who, on the basis of the ideal principles made accessible by non-sensory cognition, had in the past used speculative methods to make their points now turned to more practical forms of argumentation.  Utilitarianism, the philosophy that measured the success of ideas and institutions by their measurable gains for humanity, was a compromise solution that furthered the improvement of human institutions using the tools of non-sensory cognition while nevertheless hewing to the new emphasis on non-speculative positive knowledge.   In the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Mill, principles such as ethics and the common good were joined to scientific objectivity.  The two sides of non-sensory cognition–the elaboration of ideal principles apart from world objects and the emphasis on greater realism, objectivity, and differentiation in scientific representations of the object world–were beginning to work together more so than in the 17th and 18th centuries, when a divide still existed between “empiricists” such as Locke and “idealists” such as Hegel.  The two philosophers were using the same cognitive tool to explore the same issue but from different ends of the telescope.  The issue for both was how human cognition can improve the civil world, which is civil because it consists of the infusion of human cognition into environmental objects, a common language of norms, and educationally fostered cultural beliefs to create institutions.  Considered in this framework, there is much greater similarity between Locke’s exploration of the sensory basis of the non-sensory ideals that justify the social contract and Hegel’s only apparently quite different (even antithetical) exploration of the way non-sensory ideals infuse universal validity into particular, concrete human institutions, giving them a society-wide meaning and functionality.

I will cease my historical review here because as we approach the present and as time becomes more compressed, it becomes more difficult to see differences that suggest further development in non-sensory cognition.

If what I have suggested is the case, then we should be moved to ask:  have genetic or epigenetic differentiations occurred in humans that make us different from each other in ways that are more profound than we have so far imagined or would even like to imagine?  With the advent of human civilization, the harshest aspects of natural selection have been put on hold.  Nature no longer requires that physical adaptations be universal if each individual human organism is to survive.  But if human cultural history is any indicator, locally adaptive (epi)genetic differentiation along cognitive lines has not ceased.   My final point will be that such differentiation may account for why our societies are so conflictual.  There is no “universal human nature”; rather, there are several, perhaps many versions or forms of the same basic physiologically stable set of genes that have epigenetically varied according to local habitat (with habitat having the widest possible social, cultural, and historical meaning).  Pleistocene Man lives in body only, but not in mind.  Because evolution has shifted to cognition as civility has developed and post-natural human civilization become more complex, H. sapiens is no longer a single species bearing a single universal human nature from a cognitive point of view.

I began writing this essay in the midst of the reign of George W. Bush, thirty ninth President of the United States.  It was a reign marked by deceptive trickery, the promotion of the over-accumulation of social resources by Bush’s allies and buddies, violent attacks against adversaries for the sake of settling scores and eliminating threats to other buddies, dominance and intimidation behavior on the part of administration officials to get their way and to win elections, and other behavior that reminded me all too much of how chimpanzees behave.  I had just read Richard Wranghman and Dale Peterson’s Demonic Males:  Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, and the congruity between what I read and what I saw in the world was too striking to ignore.  People are not chimps, I told myself, yet here were grown men behaving not altogether unlike chimps.  I had been struck too by how much the behavior of conservatives on TV and radio talk shows resembled primate dominance behavior.  They did not allow others to talk and spoke over them.  The sought do dominate rather than reason or discuss.  In contrast to such efforts at intimidation, liberals on such talk shows seemed to strive to be civil and polite, empathetic and respectful.  They seemed to value civility much more than conservatives.

Such differences might be merely ideological, I knew, but the fact that they manifested themselves in physical actions led me to wonder if they might also be the result of physical causes.  I had been studying the history of conservatism for years, and I recognized repetitive, apparently structural elements of the “ideology” that suggested something deeper at work than ideas.  That led me to ask:  what if the ideology is genetic?  What struck me especially was that while liberals seemed capable of seeing the importance of universal principles such as the Geneva Convention against torture, conservatives did not.  It was not that conservatives disagreed with such principles and offered reasonable arguments to justify ignoring them.  They simply seemed incapable of grasping them, as if they lacked the “principle grasping” cognitive module.  And that went along with a much more pronounced sense of expediency than one finds in liberals.  Conservatives like Bush were not just unprincipled; they lied for expedient ends, and did not seem to recognize that there might be something wrong with that if one wanted to preserve the community one lived in.  I began to wonder too if the fact that principles are non-sensory ideas with universal validity had something to do with this failure on the part of conservatives.  What if liberals benefitted from an adaptation in the realm of cognition that is associated with an ability to think in terms of universal principles that allows humans to build cooperative civil institutions that assure individual survival by assuring group survival?  And what if conservatives simply cannot think in the same way because they did not benefit from this adaptation?  That would explain what I saw in the conservatives I had been studying in cultural history:  a greater tendency towards violence as a means of solving conflicts, a drive to control resources as a way of controlling others, a tendency to engage in dominance behavior, an inability to restrain affect for the sake of ideal universal principles, a preference for the social hierarchies that subordinated others, a bent towards simple cognitive empiricism, a preference for fused authoritarian groups, an urge toward self-serving mythology and distrust of science, etc.

At about this moment in my work, I came across research that suggested that there are physiological differences between liberals and conservatives.  I was especially struck by the fact that conservatives fear death more so than liberals.  And that made sense to me because such a fear might be part of a genetic wiring that makes one more alert to the dangers predators pose, and conservatives fostered predatory societies in which “freedom” allows those with a resource advantage to prey on others.  Moreover, a fear of death would make one struggle all the more fiercely for one’s own survival.  That suddenly explained a number of features of conservative ideology such as opposition to taxes (why give resources to competitors?) and to government regulation (which interferes with survival-oriented activities in a mutually predatory capitalist setting).  It also explained the primary motive of most conservative ideology and action:  the quest to over-accumulate resources (a guarantee of survival in a resource-competitive context).  A fear of death would also motivate one to be more prone to be defensively violent towards perceived threats to survival (hence the conservative obsession with military defense).  U.S. conservatives in the 1980s had surprised me with their willingness to exercise brutality against adversaries in Latin America.  They seemed entirely lacking in a sense of empathy of a kind found in those, such as Jesuit priests and Maryknoll nuns, they murdered because they were too friendly to the poor and the subordinate.  Conservatives condoned death squad murders and accepted as routine the massacre of civilians by allies.  But that becomes understandable if one sees the quest by poor people for economic equality of the sort that motivated the social and political movements in Latin America as a threat to the survival of those with resources that would need to be shared more equitably if such movements were to succeed.  Lacking the kinds of non-sensory cognitive ability that allows liberals to embrace universal principles and to more successfully control negative affect, conservatives react violently to threats to their resources.  Murder in Latin America was justified to preserve the ability of conservatives to over-accumulate resources without interference from the community in the form of universally valid and universally binding restraints.

It would seem that the disposition we see in conservatives is reflective of an earlier adaptation, one attuned to a more predatory environment, while the cognitive ability evident in liberals that allows for reasoning in terms of regulative universal principles that put brakes on self-centered survival imperatives reflects a later adaptation, one geared more towards a later stage of human evolution that required cooperative living in large communities.  The conservative antipathy to speculative thinking becomes more understandable if this hypothesis is true.

Conservative cognition is limited by the survival imperative, and it bears the residues of that imperative. As a result, conservative cognition is limited to the self’s need for security, safety, and survival. Such cognition is defensive, empiricist, anti-speculative, and absolutist. Defensiveness in a predatory context obliges one to monitor one’s immediate environment carefully for signs of danger, and it therefore favors empirical modes of perception over speculative ones that require one to relinquish one’s perceptual grasp on what is immediately before one. Because it seeks safety by monitoring the practical empirical world around it for signs of danger, such cognition is less equipped to use the mind’s speculative capacities to develop purely formal or abstract models of the world. Conservative cognition, as a result, is incapable of submitting animal self-interest to the rigors of formal principle. The idea that one sacrifices one’s immediate survival urges for an idea that applies equally to all and that restrains one’s self-interest for the good of others is alien to it. Conservatives react with hostility to speculative cognition or “theory” because it is associated with the possibility of death, with a letting go of the security and safety empiricist perception and the cognitive security it affords provide. They feel most safe in a windowless empiricism that is intolerant regarding speculative modes of thought. Such speculative thinking posits formal or ideal entities such as “human rights” or “universal justice” that are not things before one’s eyes like empirical objects; one cannot sense them before one in empirical perception. If the palpable presence of the world in perception confirms one’s safety, then the absence of it in formal speculative thought requires one to accept the possibility of death when one engages in it. One leaves the safety of the well-monitored world. That liberals can engage in such cognition and that conservatives cannot is probably the most singular difference between them in regard to evolved cognitive capacity.

The windowless empiricism that arises from a yearning for safety in a predatory context also leads to a need for cognitive absolutes and for cognitive control. As they require empirical certainty, conservatives also require cognitive absolutes. Absolute and certain knowledge is a way of controlling one’s environment, of assuring that one will not be vulnerable to predation. Conservatives favor modes of cognitive authority that assure predictable results over modes that emphasize uncertainty. Their thinking therefore tends to be axiomatic and to preclude experimentation or the exploration of alternatives. They will always, in consequence, oppose reform. Their most natural cognitive mode is religious belief, especially the authoritarian varieties such as Catholicism, radical Islam, and fundamentalist Protestantism, and they are hostile to scientific knowledge and experimentation that contradicts the authoritative beliefs that sustain their self-interest. They are incapable of non-absolutist thinking that is tentative and hypothetical, that tests ideas for their possible truthfulness. Conservative thinking, to assure the survival of the self, cannot afford to be uncertain in a world in which all others are viewed as predators. Consequently, it rarely entertains the reality of other possible truths about the world that might threaten the self’s ability to control its environment. Conservative cognition can therefore never be pragmatic. It can never develop pictures of the world that are tentative and partial rather than authoritatively certain and absolute.

The intense self-interest that is the most important sign in conservatives of their greater proximity to the natural impulse to survive at all costs also accounts for their inability to empathize with others. Empathy is akin to the speculative cognitive capacity because it requires that one leave the security of one’s immediate empirical field of perception in order to imaginatively inhabit another’s perspective. Such empathy is a sign of weakness in a predatory context; it leaves one vulnerable and subtracts from the aggressive posture toward potential adversaries that one must always maintain in order to survive. To imagine someone else’s point of view, to empathetically inhabit their interests and needs, is to betray one’s own most powerful survival urges. Conservatives will always, as a result, appear “heartless” in social policy debates; they seem incapable of knowing other people’s pain or of taking it seriously. They cannot do so because to relinquish one’s guarded self-interest is to momentarily let go of the survivalist urge and of the mono-perspectivalism that accompanies it. Empathy entails a diminishment of the absolute certainty of the self’s perspective and of its beliefs. It requires that one grant validity and substance to another perspective, another reality, than one’s own. One must learn to shake hands with the predator.

That is an almost impossible task for conservatives because in a predatory context in which one’s own self-interest is primary, one’s cognition of others must be characterized by fear, distrust, and hostility. That fear makes one less capable of modes of cognition that require imagination, speculation, identification with others, and empathy. As a result, conservatives have not developed these abilities, and indeed, “lack of imagination” is a common descriptive term for conservatives steeped in the predatory culture of business and commerce. But lack of imagination is much more than an inability to fantasize. It means one lacks the cognitive ability to leave one’s own perspective, assumptions, and beliefs to travel on the freeways of the mind, to visit other places, to know other people, to be other oneself. The ability to engage in such travel means one doesn’t fear death. Indeed, the fear of death that is much stronger in conservatives than in liberals is probably linked to their comparatively diminished imaginative, speculative, and empathetic capacities.

Imagination is important in one other respect. It touches on aesthetics, on the philosophy of cultural creation. If human progress along an evolutionary pathway has consisted of moving away from the animal and toward the human, away from the simplistically empirical toward increasingly complex forms of mental activity and cognitive capacity, then the ability to live in the world of imagination and of imagined stories, characters, and meanings is a significant one. It means one is capable of living in a world of purely mental activity, of ideas not attached to things. It is a sign of more evolved cognitive capacities.

Moreover, the ability to think about ideas apart from things in culture is related to the ability to imagine better forms of social life that comport with speculative ideals and formal principles such as fairness and equality. Increasingly, the philosophy of culture has emphasized imaginative complexity that requires liberal cognitive capacities—the ability to inhabit multiple perspectives, the ability to empathize with quite different points of view, a distaste for social forms such as inequality that betray formal ideals such as symmetry and harmony, arguments in favor of rational universalism, and the like. The great liberal thinkers such as Immanuel Kant who have led the way in evolving new cognitive capacities have, in consequence, usually also been thinkers about aesthetics, about what constitutes a well-made mental or imaginary object. This is the case because their goal in the world has been the creation of a world that is itself well-made, that comports with ideal principles of rightness, justice, and symmetry.

Conservative self-interest is too particular and intensely empirical an impulse to be able to accommodate itself to the cognitive necessities of rational universalism or to the ideal standards of what might be called aesthetic justice—that the world should be like a perfect work of art in its complexity, its respect for multiple perspectives, its embodiment of principles of symmetry, harmony, and unity in the form of justice, fairness, and equality. The self and its survival imperatives prevent conservatives from seeing the transpersonal rules, procedures, and regulations of principled social existence as anything but nettlesome external constraints on a personal will that is more trustworthy because more true to one’s natural self and more direct an expression of one’s natural survival urges. The self’s intuitions provide a clearer and more reliable barometer of what the self needs to survive than liberal principles and procedures designed by others for others and that originate outside the self in the artificial contrivances of language and thought.

Submission to formal principles and procedures requires that one abstract from personal interest and one’s immediate empirical context.  It requires that one mould one’s will to formal ideational imperatives.  It requires an evolved, adaptive cognitive ability liberals possess but conservatives do not. Principles are formal and equalizing. One must be able to lift oneself out of one’s natural self-interested impulses and be able to recognize that others’ needs and interests are equal to one’s own. The equalizing impulse of principle is a threat to the natural survival impulse to prioritize one’s own needs. Such ideational equalization is a threat to one’s most basic sense of reality, and perhaps for this reason, the term used by conservatives to repel the call of principle is “realism.” Realism mandates a cynicism regarding human nature that makes behavior in accordance with formal principle seem a kind of weakness. To leave one’s self, one’s palpable empirical reality, for the sake of others through the medium of universalist reasoning is to risk death.

Because conservative cognition does not lend itself to formal and theoretical reasoning, it is prone to make self-interested errors of logic. Conservatives claim that force is necessary in foreign policy, for example, but such force is not so much a response to the actions of adversaries as the cause of those actions. Terrorist attacks against the United States appear in conservative eyes as unexplained and unexplainable aggressions that demand violent responses because they can only see empirical events and cannot speculatively picture invisible, non-empirical historical causes or contextual influences. But in fact those terrorist actions originate in the violent actions of American conservatives. Much of what is negative in others’ behavior toward the U.S. arises from events such as the CIA overthrow of a democratic government in Iran in 1953, a move conceived and executed by conservatives, or the decision by the first conservative Bush administration to station United States military forces in Saudi Arabia. Logical failure is, of course, also a failure of the ability to take ethical responsibility for one’s actions, since actions without historical causes are actions for which no one need assume responsibility. Such responsibility requires that one be able to tally causes and consequences in a complex diagram in which one’s own perspective is just one part of the larger structure of relations. This would explain why conservatives’ ethical lapses in responsibility often appear as cognitive lapses, a failure even to comprehend that a wrong has occurred for which responsibility need be taken.

Conservative cognition has a bearing on conservative social action. In conservative social action, the self is paramount as is the aggressive defense of its integrity. It is not so much that the self is aggrandized as it is that the self constitutes a lead ball around which all else relating to civil life and the obligations it imposes are so many loose, flimsy filaments of thread that lack the same weight, mass, and compelling value. To think and to act conservatively is therefore to look out from a bunker through thin slots that afford a useful and sufficiently instrumental field of vision to guarantee survival. All that one sees or thinks is oriented by and toward a single perspective, and all action that one engages in has the purpose of securing and preserving the integrity of that single point in the larger social field. All other points are pictured n the conservative worldview as being themselves opaque bunkers, targets rather than windows to selves as worthy of value or respect as one’s own.  In such a mode of being, others do not have sufficient value to prevent one from harming them for the sake of one’s own survival. If one is cynical regarding others’ motives (they must be as aggressive and defensive as one’s own motives), one provides oneself a license to be callous regarding others’ well-being. To make one’s own survival paramount is to diminish the right to survival of others. It is to make them potential targets of violence. This in part explains the conservative animus toward the doctrine of human rights. A doctrine that proclaims the dignity of all, the worthiness of all of respect of person, would impose an impossible limitation on the natural impulse to violate others for the sake of one’s own survival.

My description of conservative cognitive capacity up to this point should not be taken as a claim that conservatives are less “intelligent.” Cognitive capacity is different from what is called intelligence. Cognitive capacity means an ability to think in certain ways, to conduct certain forms of ideation. Conservatives can be quite skilled at practical, instrumental, self-interested thinking and still lack cognitive capacities having to do with complexity, relational thinking, speculation, reciprocity, formal universalism, and the like. Intelligence measures practical abilities—the ability to remember or to calculate or to read. It does not measure the ability to think complexly, speculatively, imaginatively, structurally, and relationally apart from practical tasks, an ability that engages cognitive powers that only become possible once one in fact sets aside attachment to raw empirical perception anchored in practical tasks. Those cognitive powers permit one to think in terms of forms and principles such as economic fairness or substantive justice or social equality that are detached from the immediacy of practical perception and are as a result universal in scope. They apply equally to all, and they restrain self-interested behavior and oblige it to conform to an idea that is not part of a practical task with a self-interested end or goal. The principle is an end in itself. As such, it permits us all to rise above the particularity of self-interest and to do things that are beneficial to all, including onseself. Because intelligence is a measure of practical tasks, it is possible for conservatives to be quite accomplished at such things as business, law, and medicine while failing at complex thinking. Because their cognitive capacities are determined and limited by the relatively greater presence of the survival imperative in them, they will always put gain before equity, winning before justice, and the exploitation of others’ needs before principles of reciprocal respect and universal rights.

If liberals have always led the way in human evolution, conservatives have always lagged behind, opposing liberal adaptations every step of the way. When liberals invented democracy in the early modern era, for example, they easily adapted to the dangerous new realities it made possible, while conservatives opposed the new invention tooth and nail. They did so because they feared losing control over social resources they perceived as necessary for their physical survival. Fear of democracy in the 18th century was always associated with a fear of loss of property to democratic “mobs.” The conservative response to the danger of democracy took the form of an increased assertion of control over society in the form of revived monarchies, sedition laws, and outright state violence to suppress democratic dissent. From Waterloo on, control was reasserted violently by conservatives who could not adapt to the new liberal social invention by developing cognitive capacities appropriate to it, capacities that would allow one to tolerate the possibility of a change of government brought about by wills other than one’s own.

Almost by definition, conservatives are those who find invention disturbing and threatening. The impulse to survive retards their ability to adapt to liberal inventions that move humans further and further away from their original primitive animal state and toward every more civil ones. Those inventions replace the guarantee of survival that comes from certain animal traits such as aggressiveness, domineeringness, and defensiveness with traits such as civility, cooperativeness, and reciprocal respect that provide more indirect routes to survival. They do so by requiring that those who adapt give up the cognitive modes characteristic of the animal state and of the survival imperative—a windowless empiricism, a need for absolute certainty, a self-interest so intense that it prevents imaginative empathy, a self-seeking so powerful that it makes formal equality seem alien and dangerous, hostility to reciprocity, an inability to subordinate will to agreed-upon procedure, and the like. They require instead that one be able to mould one’s thinking and behavior to the demands of formal principle, to engage in empathetic identification, to be able to accept models of reciprocal equality, and to accept the complexity of multiple perspectives. Thinking complexly also requires that one extend the reach of thought beyond the bounds of immediate empirical perception and the limited instrumental range of practical self-interest. One is able to perceive structure behind empirical objects and events. Things that seem isolated connect with other things and come to be seen as embodying structural relations. Isolated things are in differential relations with other things. A sense of variability and contingency attends this way of thinking, and it frees one from the rigidity of pre-scientific convictions that prevent experimentation and invention. Things that exist in structural relations are usually changeable. They can be modified by changing the structure. This is why such thinking lends itself inevitably to science and to social reform.

In complex thinking, one adopts a neutral, objective perspective and treats knowledge as something outside the self that is not attached to self-interest. Such thinking also takes multiple perspectives into account. One shifts perspective away from the self and treats other perspectives as having equal value and weight as one’s own. To understand another perspective in this way requires an ability to imagine beyond the range of the self’s immediate survival needs and to place one’s mind outside the range of one’s survival-impelled range of empirical perceptions. That shift means giving up the self as the absolute point of value and giving up the empirical perceptual requirements of survival.

An ability to detach from the immediacy of perception and to engage in purely ideational cognition also is necessary to achieve other dimensions of civility such as cooperation and reciprocity. One can learn to trust others and to set aside an aggressive and hostile attitude in their regard by imagining their existence as something other than a threat. One can do that by imaginatively placing oneself in their perspective. Such imaginative speculation is the first step toward the kind of empathy for others that is essential to the ideal of liberal civility. To attain it, one must be able to move beyond one’s own boundaries and to direct positive affect toward something other than one’s own survival imperative. Defense of self at all costs can afford to give way to trust in others because those others have agreed to mould their behavior in accordance with the same formal universal ideals and principles of civility that one has oneself adopted.  Trust, respect, empathy, cooperation, equality, reciprocity—these goals of liberal civility require modes of cognition that are post-empirical and speculative, an ability to think apart from empirical perception and in terms of rational universals. That shift allows the invention of principles, procedures, and rules that are premised on reciprocity and equal applicability. Such ideal entities are crucial for the attainment of civility in human life because they permit a setting aside of the survival imperative.

Liberals have evolved differently in their cognitive capacities because evolution, I would argue, increasingly substitutes an ability to engage in formal reasoning, structural conceptualization, and differential and relational thinking for the empiricist, self-interested, and instrumental cognitive reflexes of the physical urge to survive. The ability to bend one’s will and one’s self-interest to the rigorous demands of principle are essential to the development and execution of these cognitive capacities. One accepts the limitations on one’s behavior that principles such as equal treatment or economic fairness impose not because they serve one’s self-interest but because they are a good in themselves as well as an end in themselves. They are like aesthetic objects, things one enjoys for their own sake. They are like scientific knowledge or the fruits of research that make the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself worthwhile for researchers, teachers, professors, scientists, intellectuals, inventors, and the like.

But self-interest is so powerful and so primary in conservatives that they cannot undertake this essential act of principled civility. They need the direct route of aggression and domination to help assure the continuity of life, while the indirect routes to survival of principled equality, reciprocity, cooperation, and the like that liberals have developed seem to conservatives to be weak and potentially dangerous to one’s chances of survival. The direct route consists of sticking one’s snout into the trough, whilst elbowing others aside. In place of this white-knuckled bundling of the necessities of survival to one’s chest, liberalism proposes alternative ways of proceeding that require a relinquishing of one’s claim to what one can grasp immediately. For conservatives, property is the gain one can claim simply by virtue of having a longer or a more aggressive reach. For liberals, the claim to property needs to be reconfigured within a larger structure of differentially related terms in a larger social whole that reciprocally sustain each other as in a complex algorithm. It is a matter of moving from arithmetic to algebra. Individual terms are modified by their relations to one another and cease to be assumed to stand simply on their own. They are subject to principles such as equity and equality because with the change of optic to algebra from arithmetic, the simple addition to one’s own sum comes to be seen as a subtraction from someone else’s in a differential equation. A change of thought mandates a change of reality. That has always been the case with liberal adaptation and invention.

Conservatives and liberals, therefore, do not so much hold different beliefs as give expression in their differing beliefs to different evolutionary locations and different, matching cognitive capacities. If liberals see a more complex world than conservatives, it is because they have more complex minds that have evolved in keeping with the evolution of more complex forms of social life that liberals themselves invented. Liberals inhabit a different evolutionary location the achievement of which demanded and in turn produced or made possible more evolved and complex cognitive capacities. As a result, they are able to “see” things conservatives cannot. Conservatives deny the reality of such things as global warming and the systematic production of inequality by unfettered capitalism because they cannot “see,” which is to say conceive, conceptualize, and imaginatively picture reciprocal, differential relations between parts of a structure that is not “there” for empirical perception to grasp. Instead, they see simple things detached from structure, field, and context, and they posit causes of those things that are equally simple. I have wealth; it must be because I am better than you, who do not have wealth. The cause is simple and in the self; it is not structural, relational, differential, and complex.

According to what might be called the law of cognitive recursiveness, those without an internal mechanism that allows them to perceive complexity will not see complexity in the world. Instead of differential relations between parts in a structure, they will see simple, isolated events, objects, and persons. Conservatives see a purely natural market universe of “free” survivalism, for example, where liberals see complex institutional relations that make possible and foster the impulses and actions such as self-interest that conservatives take as being spontaneous, unproduced, and natural. While conservatives see universal self-interest as the natural law of civil society, a liberal would look at the same social and economic situation and see that the unequal distribution of resources and the resulting unequal distribution of scarcity oblige people to urgently seek their own survival. But in a different social structure in which basic needs were supplied, the same people would be free to pursue other post-natural goals that would allow survival to be achieved through less violent and aggressively self-interested forms of social interaction. What for conservatives is the natural cause of everything is in fact an effect of a structure of relations, differences, and implicit rules that conservatives cannot grasp or see. And that structure can be changed to produce different effects, different human dispositions that, like liberal cognition itself, transcend the apparently “natural” and become the basis for creating second-order civil universes upon it.

What this line of reasoning should led to is a recognition that conservatism itself is probably both a genetic and an epigenetic phenomenon.  Contexts determine cognition to a certain degree, and while material ease allows upper class people to more easily embrace liberalism, material constraint means that lower class people are obliged to see the world differently.  A harsh environment breeds harsh and hard responses in human emotion and thought that are epigenetically triggered.  While some live in the mountains valleys of reason and benefit from well-stocked larders that enable non-empiricist cognition, others live still in metaphoric jungles.

The cognition of the jungle could not and cannot afford to be anything but concrete and empirical, firmly anchored in immediate sensory perception. Vigilance, the constant monitoring of one’s surroundings for signs of danger, demanded nothing less, and vigilance was necessary if one was to survive and to have one’s offspring survive. Cognitive biologists note that vigilance is linked to aversive relations with one’s “conspecifics.” In a world without rules, violence is unrestrained and competition for scarce resources is the only imperative worth respecting. Empiricism and survivalism for this reason are brothers, and their twin sisters are force and fear—an anxious defensive relation to one’s conspecifics and a willingness to harm them if need be in order to defend oneself.

That the cognitive disposition of conservatives may be more “ancestral” might explain some odd, almost humorous features of conservative life, such as their affection for hunting.  The fact that Sarah Palin can take down a moose as ably as she can skin a liberal is if nothing else an occasion for reflection on the persistence of the Pleistocene.  The seemingly phenotypic taste for guns and hunting just might be significant of a deeper difference. What I have found most interesting about conservatives, however, is their capacity for deceptive trickery.  They favor harsh regimentation in society, yet they call it “freedom.”  They mean, of course, that those who are in a superior position in terms of resource accumulation should be allowed to continue to accumulate.  They also should be free to exercise dominance behavior as a means of preserving control over others.  But because liberals from the 17th century on made “liberty” or freedom such an attractive ideal, conservatives have been obliged to borrow it and to bend it, quite opportunistically, to their own ends–which consist of assuring that society will be organized in such a way that their own survival interests are assured.  Interestingly, what conservative mean by “freedom” resembles feudalism.  And when things really get rough, conservatives explicitly embrace and implement neo-feudal social forms (in the Nazi experience).  This deceptive trickery is of a high order indeed, and it makes lying to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2002 or calling laws that allow pollution by one’s buddies in the energy industries “Clear Skies Initiatives” seem trivial.

If what I am suggesting is true, then we may need to stop using a term like “human nature” in the singular when we discuss the behavior of the various locally adapted, epigenetically differentiated forms of H. sapiens.  What we may be witnessing in modern societies such as the U.S. is not so much a culture war as an intra-species conflict.  More psychological and behavioral testing will need to be conducted on the difference between conservatives and liberals, but one advantage of human cultural history is that it affords ample evidence of the forms of cognition that characterize each social group.  Movies are cognitive products, and they are weighted with values that are near digital in their simplicity (think good guy versus bad guy) especially in popular fare.  If human values are shaped by epigenetic change and are preferences that are in a sense necessities, then a study of how acts of valuation or preference manifest themselves in different groups’ representations of the world, especially at times when physical survival is at issue because the civilized hazard has manifested itself, may have fruitful consequences.  The Great Depression of the 1930s was a time when human civilization’s hazard suddenly became evident.  In a cooperative civilization in which delivery of food supplants self-provision, the implicit hazard is that human-made institutions might fail, threatening the survival of all.  During the 1930s, conservatives and liberals in America debated in film what the proper response to the economic crisis should be, but what they were really debating goes much deeper and has to do with the evolutionary issues I have been discussing.  In the lexicon of popular political discussion, a key term was “liberty” (the freedom of conservatives to conduct economic activities without regulation by the community).  But at an evolutionary level, that term really means “dominance.”  Because political discussion is meant to sway a large audience with ideas that are attractive and likely to gain support for the group promoting them, such popular discussion is often characterized by representations that are never fully accurate.  A certain duplicity, especially on the part of conservatives, is needed to be effective.  In order to succeed, conservatives are obliged to call dominance liberty or freedom.

Cultural fantasies like film are a different matter, and while it may seem odd to say so, they are often if not always more true than popular political statements.  Fantasies have long been favored by cultural scholars as sources for evidence regarding underlying dispositions because fantasies, for precisely the reason they are not taken seriously by many–they lack seriousness–, are a mode of expression where internal cognitive censors and the sensing devices that might guide representational expression toward effective deception, are turned off or at a lower ebb.  One sees what people are really thinking.  If conservatives proclaim a love of “liberty” or “freedom” but in fact favor feudalism, one will be more likely to see that in conservative fantasies than in conservative political speeches.  In fantasy is an honesty lacking in censored and expedient public discourse.

The Gold Diggers of 1933 is a liberal film, while My Man Godfrey makes a conservative argument in 1937 against the liberal New Deal, a set of programs anchored in liberal ideals of universal governance for the common good.  In the midst of the worst period of suffering during the Great Depression, Gold Diggers promotes cooperation, mutual support, empathy for others, and the use of public instruments for private needs, especially that most basic need–hunger.  In contrast, Godfrey takes a much harder, even harsher approach.  The strong competent individual entrepreneur will save us, it argues, but he can do so only if everyone else submits to discipline, accepts their subordinate place in a hierarchy, and, to use an appropriate primatological metaphor, knuckles under.  Gold Diggers is noteworthy for its musical numbers, which move out of the limited space of theatrical representation and portrays a much larger space in which choreographed sequences can occur that exceed the bonds of the theater stage.  (The move is about the staging of a musical on Broadway.)  The shift from realist theater stage to non-realist and imagined stage is an exercise in non-sensory cognition.  It is as if one closed one’s eyes to sensory perception and imagined a different mental world entirely.  That exercise in super-sensory cognition is linked in the movie’s argument to the need to use one’s imagination to see how others live, to adduce their true motives, and to empathize with their suffering.  Only such imagination can permit us to live cooperatively without distrust and to empathize with and help one another at times of economic crisis.  In a crucial plot move, a wealthy man, after initially being suspicious of the motives of showgirls, learns that they have virtue and are responsible and hardworking.  Despite appearances or prejudices, they are not in fact “gold diggers.”  They deserve help.  The argument of the film is that we can trust others in times of crisis; we should empathize with those in need because they may in fact be us.  Using our imagination, our ability to engage in super-sensory cognition, we can inhabit their lives and sympathize with their needs.

Godfrey argues for realism and mocks and demeans the kind of imaginative social idealism Gold-Diggers promotes.  In the “real” world, imagination is a frivolous indulgence, as is self-pity.  Godfrey, himself wealthy though apparently poor, upbraids the wealthy for self-indulgence and frivolity.  The group’s survival is threatened because women have gotten out of control, play has supplanted the serious work of securing material survival, intellectuals and artists, who are portrayed as self-indulgent free-loaders and cheaters, have been given too much power, and the dominant male (played by an actor who resembles a silverback) has lost his position of dominance.  Godfrey’s task, one he succeeds at, is to restore that dominance by exercising his superior entrepreneurial abilities.  What is striking is the physical character of this exercise in restoration.  The free loading artist is expelled from the house violently, and the unfaithful wife is intimidated into assuming a seated position of subordination within the visual frame.  Physical force conjoined to expedient self-guided economic activity staves off the crisis of survival.

In the conservative vision, community cooperation interferes with the ability of the superior individual to pursue survival goals unimpeded and unregulated.  He, not they, should dominate if group survival is to be assured.  The liberal vision displays what non-sensory cognition has made possible for humanity–cooperative institutions, empathy, and the imaginative transformation of “reality.”  The representational style of the liberal film is predominantly connective and horizontal, while in the conservative vision the editing style isolates the individual from the group or assigns him significance as a superior being who stands apart from and above the community.  At different times in human history, each of these approaches has been adaptive, but if my argument here makes sense, then the more recently adaptive is the liberal approach.  The ancestral quality of the conservative approach is indicated by its physical character.  In this film, people literally put each other down, force each other to sit, or dominate through violence.  And “put down” also characterizes the style of humor, which demeans and derides others or gains humor from portraying them as inferior beings.  A movie like Godfrey helps clarify why conservative social policy tends to reinforce economic hierarchies organized around the unequal control of resources, advocates strong authority and leadership, fosters a lack of empathy towards others, argues for self-interest at the expense of the larger community interest, subordinates universal principles to expedient ends, and promotes a harsh “realism” or “objectivism” in cognitive attitude.

What might all of this mean as H. sapiens moves forward in time, torn between conflicting imperatives launched by very different social groups whose ideologies are rooted, apparently, in genetic differences?

If governance requires an ability to embrace principles and to subordinate expedient ends to universally valid norms, an ability that itself requires advanced non-sensory cognitive abilities that liberals seem to posses and conservatives do not, then conservatives may be ill suited for such labor.  Their dispositions may simply be too ancestral, too rooted in survival imperatives that make them incapable of the tempering of self-interested urges that thinking in principles mandates and requires.  Self-interest will always in their thought and action prevail for simple physiological and genetic reasons.  As we have seen in the U.S. regarding the attempt to create a principled health care system with universal applicability in the recent past, conservatives always subvert principled ideas that take resources from them.  But more problematically, they oppose such principled ideas because they simply cannot grasp the formal, non-sensory, universalist reasoning that makes such principled ideas reasonable.  They are incapable of seeing that helping others improves the likely survival of the community and thus also of oneself.

What we witness in such situations is not disagreement but incapacity, and that insight has consequences for how we move forward as a human group that is aware of its internal divisions.  One of the problems that is now evident with the current model of democratic governance is that it gives conservatives equal say with cognitively better equipped liberals in the project of building a more principled community even though conservatives, by virtue of their cognitive incapacity, must oppose that undertaking because it threatens their perceived survival interests.  Giving much of government’s responsibilities to a meritocratic civil service with high cognitive standards would help solve this flaw in democracy.

The commercial activities of conservatives would need to be regulated and controlled so that they cannot continue to threaten civility as they have in recent years through the self-interested manipulation of financial instruments.  In the U.S. healthcare and financial systems, conservatives have made self-interest paramount to principle by making healthcare too costly for the community and by almost wrecking the world economy by using the ideal of “freedom” to elude appropriate community controls over their activities.  In recent years, they have allowed self-interested risk to prevail over a more community-preserving sense of caution.  To control the danger their strong survival urges pose for the larger community, it would be necessary to eliminate the strong incentive to over-accumulate financial resources.  The principle of a “maximum wage” similar to the principle and institution of a “minimum wage” would help solve this problem by removing the incentive for incivility.  The amount any one person can take out of the social pool would be regulated by a siphon that would increase redistributive taxation substantially in relation to income.  At a deeper level, we need to rethink those points where evolved adaptive actions such as taking advantage of others’ needs to increase one’s own survival chances intersect with community-sustaining activities such as trade.  The supposed “law of supply and demand” grants a license (by not restricting) the evolved adaptive tendency to take more than one needs or merits (in an overall picture or scheme of relations) when the opportunity affords itself through scarcity to charge more for something.  These basic natural components of economic life cede to conservative instincts processes that should be regulated by liberal principles of civility.

Because words are things which have physical effects (Ingram), conservative public discourse, especially in the televisual media, must also be regulated to assure that harm is not done to the principles of civility.  Other countries such as Canada are much better than the U.S. in this regard, and that probably explains why verbally violent conservatives such as Ann Coulter have a more difficult time speaking there without opposition from proponents of civility.  The liberal formal ideal of free discourse must be revisited and returned to take conservative verbal violence and deceptive trickery into account.  Both need to be restrained for the sake of the community and for the sake of the ideal of civility.

Finally, conservatives choose violent solutions to conflict than liberals largely, I would argue, because they fear death more.  Still bearing an ancestral fear of predation within them, they have been incapable of developing the same higher order cognitive abilities that allow liberals to formulate and to embrace universal principles that regulate community behavior for both the common good and the good of the individual organism.  Conservatives’ cognitive abilities do not have the kind of non-sensory architecture that places restraints on affect.  They as a result use mental representations that are fuzzy, non-realist, undifferentiated, mythographic, and fused.  Religion and an opposition to science were, as a result, in the Bush years as common in governmental discourse as bellicosity, dominance behavior, resource over-accumulation, and predatory defensiveness.  Nevertheless, conservative mental representational abilities are quite clear and well-focused in regard to defensiveness, and that is where the true danger lies in continuing to permit conservatives access to certain kinds of governmental power.  For access to government is access to weapons.  And since conservatives lack a cognitive module that allows the interests of the community to trump the individual organism’s survival interest, the danger always exists that something as anti-communal and unprincipled as the use of nuclear weapons for expedient, self-interested, and particularistic ends is possible.  Recall that Bush did entertain the idea of using “tactical” nuclear weapons against Iran but was prevented from doing so by his military officers.[vii] The appropriate solution, based in universal principle, to this problem is for all national military establishments to be eliminated and replaced with one single one that is in the hands of the United Nations.

Finally, it is no doubt wise and necessary to distinguish kinds of conservatives.  It is a singular word, but if there is a piece of human genomic hard-wiring that expresses itself as hardcore ideological conservatism, there no doubt also is an epigenetic variant of the phenomenon.  Many conservatives seem more victims than perpetrators.  Poverty and harsh living conditions replicate earlier human evolutionary locations.  We carry part of the past with us in a way, and some of us lead brutal lives as a result that resemble lives many centuries ago, even lives in supposedly civil conditions.  Homelessness is one version of that, but so is low income life in general.  Such social environments may trigger a defensive disposition that is present in most humans and that contains elements of the conservatism I have described here.

My argument has been that human cognition made a major advance in the first milennium BCE that included becoming capable in a more advanced way than before of distinguishing form from substance.  A capacity for formalism gave us universalism, and universalism gave us civilization in its modern normatively regulated, highly integrated iteration.  But formalism has also blinded us to differences of substance that we need to address.  According to the principles of formal universalism, we are all the same.  But in evolutionary substance, we are not.  Addressing that problem (and it is a problem) will require steps that offend the ideals of formal universalism.  But it is possible that such universalism needs to be supplemented with newer, more complex kinds of thinking and theorizing if it is not capable of solving the problems that face us.

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[i] Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution:  A History of Capitalism (New York, 2010), p. 5, 6.

[ii] The history of western literature is a history of increased realism, and that would suggest a development over time that was characterized by an increased number in the population capable of more developed non-sensory cognition.  It is suggestive that more detailed and realist mental representations are linked to a greater capacity for individuation and separation from the object world and that both modern liberalism (a legal and political doctrine organized around the ideal of the individual and his/her rights) and modern science (which presupposes increased objectification of the world) come into being at the same roughly time as modern literary realism.  From Galileo and Boccaccio to Darwin and Zola, a development and a linkage is imaginable.

[iii] “Once a trait has become genetically fixed, it may continue to be expressed even if an environmental change causes it to lose its advantage or become detrimental. . . . Possibly the most important aspect of local adaptation in two antagonistic species is the relative rate at which they (co)evolve.”  T. Kawecki and D. Ebert, “Conceptual Issues inn Local Adaptation,” Ecology Letters (12 Noveember 2004), Volume 7, Issue 2, pp. 1225-121.

[iv] “Thus restricted gene flow is a pre-requisite for local adaptation. Restricted gene flow (due to low passive dispersal or active habitat choice) also makes the conditions for maintenance of polymorphism more favourable. The conditions for maintenance of polymorphism are more favourable for loci with large effects; such loci also show greater differentiation of allele frequencies under divergent selection. Furthermore, alleles with strong effects are less likely to be lost by drift. Therefore, loci with large effects on fitness should disproportionally contribute to local adaptation.”  Kawecki and Ebert, op.cit.

[v] Letter to Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro,

[vi]Gregory Clark contends in A Farewell to Alms (Princeton, 2007) that demographic changes during late Medieval times account for the change in intellect evident in the 18th century across western Europe, but such reasoning does not account for the earlier presence of similar cognitive abilities both during the Greek Enlightenment and across Eurasia at the same time.

[vii] Michael Chossudovsky, “Is the Bush Administration Planning a Nuclear Holocaust?”  Global Research.  February 22, 2006.

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