How Evolution can help us understand the rise of Donald Trump

Normally I would not talk about politics on the blog, but the rise of Donald Trump in the US has made me think a lot about why potential leaders like himself, and other historical Fascists, have become so popular with the people in their respective countries.


I have always been fascinated by human behaviour, that is why I wanted to study primates, so I could learn the evolutionary reasons behind why we do the things we do.  Many primate species, like baboons, macaques and chimpanzees, work together in their own groups to defend their resources from other groups.  The same could be said of early groups of human hunter-gatherers.  Small bands of humans worked together to protect their territory and resources from other groups. Though the reasons behind this us versus them mentality were not just about protecting what was theirs, but also to have a small group of individuals where everyone was known, and therefore could prevent cheaters.  Cheaters would undermine the cohesion of the group and the likelihood of acting altruistically.


Where does this suspicion out outsiders come from?  According to well known primatologist Frans de Waal it is"Sort of bred into the primate line is that you belong to a group and you don't necessarily like outsiders.”  What I find really interesting is that our closest related primate cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos deal with outsiders and conflict is two very different ways. If chimpanzees encounter individuals from another group in their territory they are very likely to attack the intruders and a violent exchange usually occurs.  Bonobos on the other hand, may be suspicious of intruders from another group that comes into their territory, but after some initial inspection they are all having sex and grooming.  

There is speculation that these differences may be due to bonobos having a richer array of food resources in the forests they live in, so they don’t have to be as competitive.  Some chimpanzee groups live in very fragmented forests with human settlements all around them, and that can lead to a high level of competition between groups for the limited resources available.  Maybe as we exploit and use up our resources, we are becoming more like chimpanzees in the way we deal with outsiders.  

"By nature, people are group-living animals -- a strategy that enhances individual survival and leads to what we might call a 'tribal psychology'," says Steven Neuberg, ASU professor of social psychology, who authored a study with doctoral student Catherine Cottrell. "It was adaptive for our ancestors to be attuned to those outside the group who posed threats such as to physical security, health or economic resources”  But this innate tribal psychology can overcome the rational part of our brains that knows the majority of immigrants are coming to our countries to find better lives for themselves and their families, not harm people in the countries they are coming to.   

Trump is capitalizing on this fear and tendency to dislike outsiders.  He is blaming immigrants and Muslims for the downfall of the “great American dream” and people are buying it because they want someone to blame for their issues and problems.  Blaming an outsider is a lot easier than blaming their own country or people, as we don’t have the same connection or trust to outsiders as we do with people within our own group.  

“People sometimes assume that because we say prejudice has evolved roots we are saying that specific prejudices can't be changed. That's simply not the case," Neuberg says. "What we think and feel and how we behave is typically the result of complex interactions between biological tendencies and learning experiences. Evolution may have prepared our minds to be prejudiced, but our environment influences the specific targets of those prejudices and how we act on them.”  The targets of prejudice have changed throughout the years, at the moment in the US it is illegal Mexican immigrants and Muslims, while Hitler blamed the Jews for the downfall and problems Germany was facing.  

So what can be done to stop our innate prejudice and fear of outsider?  I wish I knew the answer. I think part of it lies in our amazing ability to empathize with each other.  We just need to extend that empathy to a wider range, and not just be empathetic to our own in-group members.   I also think helping people understand the evolutionary roots of their prejudice towards out groups can help tremendously.  

 I hope the American people realize that they are being manipulated and don’t allow Trump to win the Republican nomination, but as it is looking know I am not sure they will.  As a Canadian, I can only look on from the sidelines, and hope that they make the right choice.  

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