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Do You Hate Politics? Blame Biology

I don’t think you can start talking about political order without talking about human biology.  There’s really two principles that I think every one of us is familiar with.  One the biologists call “Kin Selection” or “Inclusive Fitness.”  What that means is that we favor genetic relatives.  So this is the basic principle of nepotism.  The other one is called “Reciprocal Altruism,” which again, I think every one of us is familiar with: “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  We build personal face-to-face relations using these two mechanisms.  

So we basically are programmed to favor friends and family, so no child needs to be taught how to do this and this is the default mode of politics.  And in some sense, to get real political order, we need to get beyond this kind of sociability. Chimpanzees do this. A lot of other animals favor friends and family, but you can’t have a human political order if that’s all you’re going to do.  You need citizens. You need people you’re going to treat in an impersonal way because that’s what a modern state is supposed to do.  

But we’re still stuck in that biology.  I think all of us recognize that we will behave this way if we’re not forced to, for example, hire somebody with talent rather than our cousin or our brother-in-law. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

 

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