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Politics and Evolution

No Escape

People look at politics and get discouraged. It seems to be nothing but a scramble for power where anything goes and where corruption and self dealing are common. Why should a citizen bother with a mess like that? I hate to break it to you, but politics is not about sober deliberation that leads to reasonable conclusions. Get over it. And if we don't figure out how to deal with the mess it will get worse.

Let me try to illuminate this issue with the light of Evolution. (Aka Natural Selection or the Evolutionary Algorithm). One approach is via Richard Dawkins' idea of an extended phenotype. Here's how that idea works. An animal or plant has a genotype: basically it's the dna that resides in all our cells. A phenotype is the physical body that the dna produces. So a beaver has a body of a particular fat rodentish type adapted for eating trees and living in the water with a big flat tail. That's what it's phenotype is like, which depends on it's beaver genotype. Beavers respond to running water by trying to stop the flow with sticks and leaves and mud. They create dams that make ponds out of streams. The ponds provide a habitat safe from predators where they can build their nearly impregnable lodges. The ponds provide safe access to the trees that are beaver food and building material. The dams and ponds are called the beaver's extended phenotype, and like the phenotype, the extended phenotype depends on it's beaver genotype.

Many kinds of life forms have extended phenotypes but not all. For instance, one might think of a coral reef as being an extended phenotype of the coral polyps. But the octopus that lives there seems not to have an extended phenotype at all. Instead the octopus has a stunningly versatile phenotype. But I think it's obvious that humans have an extended phenotype. We call it society. The extended phenotype of a beaver has various features like dams and ponds and lodges. The extended phenotype of humans has features like roads and stores and politics.

A phenotype is a pretty constant thing give a genotype. It's why we can tell dogs from cats from humans. An extended phenotype is much more responsive to the environment, both physical and ecological. Humans are humans. We have our ideas and our ways of bonding and working together. But we are many and widely dispersed. Often it happens that the ways of group A here differ from the ways of group B there. Politics happens when groups A and B have to reconcile their differences so they can work together. Let me point out that this is a fractal kind of thing. Group A has subgroups A1 and A2. And they have subsubgroups A1a and A1b; on out to things like A1b1!a3 . . . . . So - to return to a point I raised at the beginning - what is a citizen to do about that? I leave that as an exercise for the reader. But I doubt that talking about logical utopias will work.

There is another way that Evolution works here. Above I talked about how politics is a product of human evolution. But politics can also be seen as something influenced by the Evolutionary Algorithm directly. To do this I need to identify a loop that involves a replicator, some variation, and a selection pressure. Recurring elections provide us with the loop. Candidates are the replicators and they are variable. The outcome of elections provide us with a selection pressure.

The tricky thing here is the selection pressure in a society as polarized as ours. And I don't want to minimize the significance of that polarization. Religion is dying and religious people don't like it. Let me be clear - by religion in this context I mean the various mainstream religions: christians, jews, muslims, hindus, buddhists. The absolute numbers of their adherents is still going up due to population growth, but the relative numbers have been declining for a long time.

I think we see what we'd expect in that evolutionary situation. Those whose position is in decline get more and more extreme in an attempt to solidify their 'base'.

So here we are

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.