(or, how I came to think it was a good idea to apply evolutionary theory to politics)
As an undergrad, I studied political science at Pitzer College and immersed myself in history, philosophy and international politics. Combined with a semester working in Washington D.C., I grew to appreciate the immense role that power and coercion play in politics, especially at the international level. It was quickly obvious to me, however, that an understanding of politics is necessarily incomplete without at least a cursory understanding of economics. This realization led me to pursue graduate study at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies.
It was during my time at the Korbel School that I developed a deep fascination with economic and political decision-making. I found that the more I studied “macro-phenomena” such as international war or trade, the more I was convinced that answers to these puzzles must stand upon firm “micro-foundations.” In other words, before we can explain large scale political phenomena like the behavior of massive nation-states, we must first understand the behavior of the individuals that compose them. Yes, groups are more than the sum of the individuals that compose them, but on its own, this is a poor argument for the wholesale dismissal of human psychology. Additionally, I found the mere assumption of rationality, which often “stands in” for psychology in political science and economics, to be as elegant as it is unsatisfactory. Somewhat ironically, therefore, while my interest in politics compelled an examination of economics, it was my study of economics that ultimately brought me to psychology.
My doctoral research began at the University of California Santa Barbara and concluded at Brown University. However, two individuals formed the intellectual cornerstone of this period throughout. The first was Rose McDermott, whose groundbreaking research in the growing field of political psychology and conflict was leading a revolution in international relations. The second was the psychologist Leda Cosmides, who, along with her husband, the anthropologist John Tooby, and a growing army of intellectual followers, had pioneered the field of Evolutionary Psychology. Although I had already been convinced for many years of a necessary link between biology and behavior (reading pop science books such as Matt Ridley’s Origins of Virtue, for example), it wasn’t obvious to me how this perspective could be applied to explain puzzles of political behavior, such as war and peace.
Rose, Leda, John, and the rich group of scholars I met while at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology helped me to realize that, although these questions are indeed difficult, they are not impossible to answer. All questions of behavior are, to some extent, implicitly evolutionary, since we cannot help but engage the world with the adapted mind that we have inherited from a long and complicated evolutionary history as a species. Although evolutionary explanations of behavior are often contrasted with cultural explanations of behavior, these are not truly alternatives, since it is our evolutionary inheritance that makes culture possible in the first place.
My research builds on a set of recognitions: First, the human brain has been shaped in distinct and knowable ways by natural selection operating over millions of years of evolution. Second, this evolutionary history has produced a brain that consists largely, but not exclusively, of complex adaptations that were designed to do things that were adaptive in the environments in which our species evolved – even if the modern environment is now very different. Third, one set of psychological adaptations humans possess is a “coalitional psychology,” which refers to the collection of adaptations designed to shape reasoning, motivation, and behavior in the many contexts of group living. Fourth, perhaps the most important challenge we confront as a group is the presence of other groups. Ancestral inter-group relations, much as today, carried with them the potential for trade, wealth and cooperation as well as the possibility of aggression and violence. The many challenges of group living (what evolutionary psychologists call “adaptive problems”) clearly would have held tremendous material and reproductive consequences for our ancestors. This means that it is possible that natural selection would have shaped our brains to process information and regulate behavior, in the context of group interaction, in ways that would have been ancestrally adaptive.
Given these recognitions, my research explores the ways in which our “adapted minds” are designed to make decisions and to reason about problems such as: When and why do we choose to fight? What motivates us to seek revenge against our adversaries? When and how do we come to the conclusion that a political struggle requires the ultimate sacrifice? Has evolution designed our brains to think certain things and feel certain ways about some types of wars versus others, such as defensive struggles versus offensive aggression?
These interests and questions have led to an active research program on the evolutionary logic of political violence. If you would like more information about this research area, feel free to navigate the links at the left of this page, which will take you to more information about my research and teaching.