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All Our Tribes, Choose Their Sides – An Evolutionary Tale of Political Partisanship

By: Bill Portela

Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives. Whites, Blacks, Asians, or Hispanics. Smothered-harried workers, or instead, yacht-basking hedge fund managers behind gated communities. With which of these extended-virtual clans do we associate? Oh, that’s right. We human-types are pinnacle species. All of us now being rugged individualists that jettisoned tribal origins thousands of years ago. Advanced brains think unique-lofty thoughts as if shaping our fates like stalwart captains steering Viking ships through perilous cultural and economic fjords. Nomadic and clan behaviors were for simple hunter-gatherers. Civilization has surely transpired to stunningly-new levels of self-determination. If only this were true.

Our species, Homo sapiens, is a mere 200,000 years old. A veritable trifle when compared to ancient flora and fauna from 500-million years in the past. Fifty-thousand years ago, we were still having sex with the soon to be genetically-absorbed Neanderthals. Neanderthal genes remain intact in all races with European and Asian ancestries. For most of our human history, our forebearers eked out a living on the African continent. But our prior incarnations include hominids (great apes and human-like relations), primates, and mammals back through 200-million years. The now overwhelming hordes of Darwinian chickens coming home to roost, validate that we spawned from reptilian, amphibian, and then fish lines back to the Cambrian period of a half-billion years ago. The nineteen hundred’s era humorist Will Cuppy quipped that “All modern men are descended from a wormlike creature, but it shows more on some people.”

In 1990, American neuroscientist Paul MacLean proposed that human brains layer upward through three earlier platforms. His Triune Brain theory charts a meticulous, hard-fought genetic blueprint over the eons. He describes the physically lowest reptilian foundation, followed by a central early-mammalian layer of emotionality, and later capped-off by our most recent, outermost neocortex. MacLean ably documents that modern lizards with their much-reduced cerebral cortex and limbic system (middle brain aspects) still establish strict hierarchies of dominance, submission, and group behavior. Alpha males and females rule over mating rights, access to food sources, and the possession of prized, sunny-topmost rock crevices. Mammals then evolved expanded suites of advanced social interactions as they nursed young, evaded deadly predators, and jostled for resources with their herd mates and extended families (the social brain hypothesis). These emerging capabilities built upon expanded areas of our two higher brain architectures. Emotionally, however, instead of humans, the two most sophisticated branches of mammals on our world comprise the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and the elephants!

These two groups have larger brains than humans. Both clusters display multi-generational family units that arguably are more resilient, supportive, and nurturing than we supposedly, apex-humans. But what does all this evolutionary biology have to do with our two-party political system wreaking havoc on the middle class since the end of the second world war? The answer has now unraveled as 99% of our letter-for-letter DNA codes reveal our genetics are nearly indistinguishable from chimpanzees. 3,000,000 DNA coding sequences—almost identical! We remain naked apes torn from the protective hunter-gather lifestyles, where we formulated most of our instinctual programming. Programming. Do modern people carry pre-wired instructions setting them against one another depending on race, ethnicity, or political affiliation? Sea turtle hatchlings dash toward the surf in a life-or-death race to the sea. These scrambling-newborns, having no contact with their parents, employ three advanced types of navigation, while having brains no larger than the tips of our pinkies. After scouting the lowest visual horizon toward the beach, hatchlings sense pneumatic wave pulses to cut swells at 90-degree angles, leading them quickly to open water. All the while, the bantlings manufacture a neural-magnetic map used to navigate back to their birthplace, years later, and when thousands of miles removed. These neural instructions are nature, not nurture.

We fashion many of our values within family and community settings (nurture). But the ways we react to, process, and defend against affronts to our beliefs are millions of years in the making. We are awash in toxic social and political quagmires pitting voter against voter. Our rural citizens harbor mistrust for urban dwellers, while whites suspiciously eye people of color and vice versa. Citizens share fanciful and often inaccurate news memes at lightning speeds across the Internet. We are egged-on by corporate media tycoons with their own nefarious agendas. But people actively seek information-streams bolstering their value sets. Media outlets set the bait … and we take it. Sometimes instead, Russian bots lay the subterfuge, and we still lap it up. When confronted with inconvenient facts or data, our species seems to dig in, become defensive, and then lash out (or perhaps seethe). All of us have now undoubtedly jettisoned online media friends when they drone on and on—for the other side. But, how did we excommunicate political entities from our friends-list thousands of years ago?

We may have disposed of rivals—literally. During the dawn of our species along the East African rift, in clans of 50 hunter-gathers, you toed the line, or you became extinct. To put up a fuss with a leading tribal coalition meant loss of stature, fewer resources, less protection, and perhaps banishment. Large, isolated mammals across our world are challenged to survive in the wild, hominids included. Zenith predators such as grizzly bears and cougars, being exceptions. If you weren’t a deadly, climax killing-machine, then as lone individuals and small groups, you became targets. And throughout history, if your people weren’t tightly coherent and unified, then your caste, city-state, or ethnicity were overrun. Or assimilated. Perchance, annihilated.

How many of these preconditioned thought patterns lay resident in human neural networks? You might not feel comfortable with the answer. Darwin’s natural selection has been overwhelmingly confirmed in every species on our planet. Descent with modification. Individuals of any carbon-based make or model, respond to their ecology, and the winners pass their genes on. Our neural wiring (at first fashioned via underlying DNA) builds upward through three layers. We carry autonomous programs (breathing, heart rate, etc.), requiring no conscious manipulation on our part. The bottommost reptilian computational aspects, near our brain stem, STILL constrain our behaviors toward ancient survival mechanisms. MacLean’s “R-complex” also leads us to recognize power hierarchies, and to act accordingly. Our mid-level paleomammalian complex then shapes our decision pathways as we attempt to navigate the intricacies of surviving within social groups of our own species. Studies charting political affiliations (conservative versus liberal) with physical neural differences suggest 40 to 50% of the way we interact with societal dilemmas remain instinctual and physiological in origin. Nature again, not nurture.

But 50,000 years ago, something puzzling happened as we steadily replaced every “archaic” Homo genus culture known. An improved logic-interface in our expanding cerebral cortex propagated language, symbolic thoughts, and emergent capabilities to remember and pass down crucial environmental information to our kin. Now, cultural interactions shaped expansive, learned neural libraries (nurture, not DNA). But these recent changes (that may only influence our actions by 50%) overlie a reptilian/mammalian neural underpinning 315 million years in the making. We seek comfort and guidance from physical, or now virtual clan synergies. Once we adopt a political party, virtual-leader, or movement, we then become biased and unscientific. We stick to our group, share their memes, and take issue with the opposing tribe. We enact the same behaviors that kept foundling races from ending up in the refuse bin of evolution.

Deep inside us, political differences are not just about tax rates and immigration policies. Our brains were honed to survive within small, tightly coherent groups of 50 to 100 members. We conformed to the ruling power architecture. If we didn’t, we faced ultimate perils. Each of us exists today—because over two million years, NONE of our ancestors orchestrated a failed insurrection, to a vengeful coalition. Like reptiles, and in a similar fashion to the mammals that we are, we watch our backs and kowtow to dominance pecking orders. Political parties and social factions (and their die-hard supporters) aren’t all about making the world right. The ethnic, national, social, and political differences between us all, foster residual defensive strategies that were decisive in keeping early hunter-gatherers alive, with their clans intact.

In her groundbreaking work on our sister group, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior, Jane Goodall recounts how one pugnacious community of chimpanzees systematically exterminated a neighboring group as the power-balance and population strength slowly tipped toward the victors. Like humans, chimpanzees also assail one another as they form cliques, warbands, and engage in leadership intrigues and plots. If community infighting and unrest weaken any mammalian social grouping, these packs, herds, or societies become closer to extinction. Our ingrained thought patterns—take sides. We coalesce around our resource confederacies (people like ourselves), lock our antlers, or instead use “indirect aggression” to suppress rivals (criticism, rumors, social exclusion). Over the last 50,000 years, we became nouveau humans. But our reptilian, mammalian, and primate thought patterns are vastly older.


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