Too much listening to Tea Baggers (their most appropriate name?), and the 100% Republican opposition to the Health Care Bill that just passed the House (hooray!!!), and fear of violence in the streets of Haiti as justification for the slow US response there, and the many bizarre responses to what I thought was a really excellent “State of the Union” address a couple of months ago- all of these things colluded to make me wonder if the basic difference between Democrats and Republicans is the dosage of their altruism gene(s). It would also help explain why neither side can really understand how the other side can “think that way”.
This gulf of mutual incomprehension seems to be common in some other genetically linked behaviors – addictions, compulsions, etc. – if you don’t (or do) have them, it’s usually difficult to understand people who do (or don’t) “think that way”. Even simple behaviors: people who keep a clean house don’t understand those who don’t, people who mow their lawn every week don’t understand those who don’t, people who talk on their cell phone while driving and kill innocent people don’t understand those who don’t. And of course: scientists and artists.
So why not: strongly Democratic voters have strong expression of their altruism genes, while strongly Republican voters don’t. Of course, I’m certainly not the first person to discuss this possibility.
Now like any behavior, the mix of what is genetic and what is environment is exceedingly complex. Some people might be born with no altruism genes, but then grow up in an altruistic environment and eventually even choose to work at a university or in social work. Having or not having the gene, or having the pre-disposition, doesn’t always mean expression of the behavior.
Now this sounds bad for Republicans, right? But what about overly rich, career Republicans who start philanthropic foundations? This is a good thing. (One question is: how many of those don’t name the foundation after themselves?) And from a purely biological perspective of individual fitness, aren’t less altruistic people making the more “correct” choice?
The commonly used definition of altruism: just “to help someone else”, is not the biological definition, where altruism also means some detriment to the individual’s fitness occurs during the helping (e.g. paying higher taxes to give everyone health insurance). It is this detriment to the individual that complicates the choice: in other words: relative to pure individual fitness, it is stupid to be altruistic: so the logical choice from this perspective is to vote Republican. It’s also a highly logical Economics system: maximization of individual economic agents who are effective at increasing their individual fitness lifts up the whole economy. Still, it just feels “wrong” and it’s difficult to see how people could “think this way”.
Altruism clearly has behavioral overlap with cooperation and compromise, so people with high dosages of altruism will also be the most likely to attempt and re-attempt to bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension with those who don’t’ “think that way,” while those who have low dosages of altruism will be far less inclined to reach across the gulf – they are hardwired to just keep saying no. At the extremes: one side can’t see the forest beyond their own tree, and the other side can’t see anything but the forest to the detriment of their own tree. The ecosystem needs a compromise between these views to survive.