This election season, evolution is as far off the radar screen as you can get. Who cares if candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson are in denial about evolution when they’re in denial about everything else? Hillary & Company are more accepting of evolution but will only tell you when asked—and hardly anyone is asking.

Why should anyone care about evolution literacy when so many other issues clamor for our attention, such as the economy, inequality, climate change, terrorism, and the refugee crisis? The answer is that evolutionary theory can help us understand and provide solutions to each and every one of these issues.  We need evolutionary theory to help construct our social environments, just as much as we need physics to help us construct our bridges and buildings.

To commemorate 2016 Darwin Day, here are two views from Michael Price and David Sloan Wilson.

Evolution & Trump
Michael Price

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this campaign is the prospect of a President Donald Trump. What can an evolutionary perspective tell us about Trump’s suitability for this role, and why he appeals to some voters? According to our ‘service-for-prestige’ theory of leader–follower relations1, human nature tends to regard leaders as ‘good’ if they provide followers with collective benefits; in exchange, followers voluntarily provision such leaders with social status. In contrast, ‘bad’ leaders are primarily interested in their own self-aggrandizement, and achieve status based on their power to harm, rather than benefit, their followers. Trump’s case is interesting in light of this theory. He can be startlingly self-aggrandizing, which does turn a lot of people off. But others interpret his egoism as a kind of self-confident aggressiveness, and they like it because they think it enhances his ability to produce a particular kind of collective benefit. What benefit is this? The delivery of harm to groups whom Trump’s followers regard as the enemy (these tend to be groups who are demographically dissimilar to Trump himself). So the alarming thing about Trump is that the main ‘collective benefit’ he offers supporters is a perceived ability to harm the people they hate. American political culture has become so self-defeatingly partisan and polarized, and more than ever it requires unifiers—leaders who are good at bringing factions together, rather than just driving them further apart. That’s why Trump is the opposite of what the USA needs right now.

It’s the economy, stupid
David Sloan Wilson

Bill Clinton famously won his elections by focusing on the economy. The economics profession is currently in deep turmoil. For decades, it has set itself apart from the other social sciences by being more theoretical and mathematical, but that edifice was based on absurd assumptions and has now collapsed. In its place is a motley crew of so-called “heterodox” schools of economic thought that lack theoretical unity. 

The economics profession was right to seek theoretical unity supported by mathematical models.  That goal should be shared by all other branches of the human social sciences and it can be achieved with a combination of evolutionary theory and complexity theory. Evolutionary theory does a much better job than orthodox economics at explaining the nature of human preferences and abilities. Complexity theory does a much better job than orthodox economics at explaining large-scale economic systems that are often out of equilibrium. 

The need to provide a new theoretical foundation for the economics profession is so great that the Evolution Institute has dedicated a new magazine to the subject—Evonomics.com—in addition to the Economics section of TVOL.  Anyone who reads the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Financial Times, or The Economist should check out Evonomics.com—and tell their elected officials to do the same. Evonomics is ready for prime time and it will be difficult for politicians to be in denial about evolution when it provides the foundation for economic policies that work. 

[1] Price M. E., Van Vugt M. (2014). The evolution of leader-follower reciprocity: The theory of service-for-prestige. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8: 363.

Published On: February 11, 2016

Michael Price

Michael Price

Michael E. Price is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University London. He has a BA from Duke University and a PhD from the UC Santa Barbara Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and he has conducted studies among both Westerners and indigenous Amazonians. His research focuses mainly on the evolutionary origins of moral beliefs, especially those related to cooperation, punishment, egalitarianism, leadership, and sexual behavior.


David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.

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