Monday, July 09, 2007

Defining Liberalism

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's wonderful Quirks and Quarks radio show interviewed David Sloan Wilson on 23 June 2007 regarding his new book Evolution for Everyone. I belatedly caught the podcast while on holiday, oddly enough in Canada.

Prof. Wilson specifically addressed group dynamics and the thinking of humans in terms of social groups. It seems easy for Westerners to think of ourselves as individuals and ignore our obvious group dependencies. He mildly denigrated the thoughts of Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and the other evolutionary rationalists when he discussed the place of religion. Interestingly, Wilson noted that 95% (his measurement; I have not verified it but do not think he was speaking rhetorically) of conversations between people in a church relate not to theology but to group dynamics (how people can/could/should get along with each other). He uses this fact to suggest that religious thinking evolved (in a biological sense) to assist us with group behavior. He didn't mention the Baldwin Effect in the podcast, but I look forward to seeing whether it is discussed in the book.

I am particularly interested in the "us versus them" boundary in human behavior and Wilson discussed that. He noted the peculiar tendency of soldiers to act altruistically toward each other while killing the enemy; an extreme form of "us versus them" behavior and one close to the behavioral patterns found in and between hunter-gatherer groups. Then he said a fascinating thing: if one were to consider the group size to be larger, then one sees the killings as immoral. That immediately made me think about liberalism in our society.

What makes a liberal? Why do some people (myself included) become more liberal as they age? I was reared in a conservative, mostly rural society, attended a military college and was surrounded by conservative people until leaving the Navy. However, my thoughts became more liberal as I traveled and observed. Bill Clinton has said "The Democrats win when people think", which may be the same thing. Using Wilson's way of thinking, it suddenly makes sense that the ivory halls of academe are bastions of liberalism. Travel and thinking tend to make one see the world as a wider and more interconnected place. The group size one sees, in other words, becomes larger. Perhaps, as in the case of some, the observed group size becomes the size of the entire population.

I think this is a very, very useful meme. It is the first way of thinking about the differences between people's politics of which I am aware that both satisfies Occam's razor and provides a basis for further negotiation. Once the basis for disagreement is known, a solution is surely closer.


  1. It might also be interesting to integrate into this idea the numerous documented cases of soldiers on opposite sides, but sharing a common culture, acting altruistically towards each other. Consider the numerous examples from the European Wars of the 18th and 19th century, and several from WWI. I am unaware of examples after WWI; this is probably a reflection of my ignorance, but it could also reflect the less static nature of warfare after the introduction of mechanised warfare; and the gradual shift from melee to close-assault to decide tactical combat.

  2. You might be interested in this article:
    by Yaneer Bar-Yam

    I found it to be an illuminating attempt at formally describing the social organism.