What the Tea Party and Evolutionary Theory have in Common

The other day I read two interesting articles in the 14 October NY Review of Books. One was a review by H. Allen Orr of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness; the other was a review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice by Samuel Freeman. (Unfortunately both pieces are behind the pay wall but the links get you  to the first few paragraphs of each.) The Price of Altruism explores the fascinating but tragic life of George Price who at one point set out to explain how creatures could exhibit altruism even when such behavior defied that predicted by the theory of evolution, specifically natural selection. As the reviewer notes, Darwin himself understood that altruistic behavior was not well-explained by the dynamic of natural selection. “How could natural selection promote or even allow behavior that is costly to the individual that performs it but that benefits someone else?”  George Price developed mathematical equations in the last century that essentially could be said to prove that natural selection WITHIN a group favors selfishness but that natural selection AMONG groups would favor altruistic behavior. “Groups including many cooperative individuals will do better, as a group, than those including many uncooperative individuals.”

So, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the Tea Party. For that we have to turn to the book The Idea of Justice. (unlike the first book, I’ve actually been reading The Idea of Justice and am about halfway through.) In the book Amartya Sen explains how a just society and a fair society are not really the same thing. As he uses the word, a just society would be one that maximizes the overall potential of the people in that society, even though this maximization might result in certain individuals not being able to make the best use of their personal capabilities. (Think here of governments that impose progressive tax policies.) A society that was fair to individuals, i.e. allowed each individual unfettered ability to reap the gains of his or her capabilities, would, on the other hand, almost certainly not be just. (I’m paraphrasing Sen’s much more complicated argument.) It is also interesting to contemplate which of the two societies would be optimal based on some impartial standard, if such existed. Would the fair or just society come closer to approaching the ideal?

So this got me to thinking about the Tea Party. The Tea Party Movement’s emphasis on minimal government interference with individual lives and choices (except of course for homosexuals and women) is in essence an expression of pure Natural Selection as a Governance Philosophy. The philosophy of the Tea Party Movement supports a fair society above a just one. Which strikes me as somewhat odd, given that the majority of Tea Party supporters, judging by their candidates, oppose the unchallenged teaching of evolution. My guess is that the average member of the Tea Party movement would either assert that the “natural selection” society would be the best possible or just not be interested at all in the concept of a best society–just some nutty, socialist thinking that.

It’s an interesting question to ponder, or at least I find it interesting. What should we strive for? Our maximum individual fulfillment or the maximum betterment of our group, by which I mean humanity. One would hope the two are not often in conflict, but I know that is not the case. Isn’t this in fact the fundamental question in political life?

So why is it that it’s never discussed?

4 responses to “What the Tea Party and Evolutionary Theory have in Common

  1. Ah, you assume critical & consistent thinking among those involved in politics! I see this as an ‘American’ problem. Much of America was founded upon individualism…rights of individuals, chances to strike it rich, break out from gov’t rule, etc. Our country was founded upon the individual vs. the ‘nation’ – the collective. Not so with much of the rest of the world. Allow me to use the Bible as an analogy since so many Tea Party-ers refer to themselves as Christians and deny evolution. In the Old Testament, the emphasis was on the people of Israel (the nation as a whole), not the person of Israel. This doesn’t change in the New Testament, emphasis is still on the collective,the Church vs. the individual. But somehow over time, as the Church became Hellenized, the focus became more on the individual vs. the ‘church’ (focus on one’s personal relationship to Jesus as end-all-be-all vs. how that personal relationship manifests itself with others to His glory). This view of Christianity permeates our society today and ties into the ‘what’s in it for me’,’me as the center’ mentality. Because this is so subtle & reinforced by society, I don’t think most folks stop and think about it or realize it. And that’s partly why their view is for ‘fair’ vs. ‘just’. My guess is they’d be hard-pressed to argue the ‘logic’ if you posed your challenge. Which also shows a lack of critical thinking about one’s own faith, let alone politics and current events! They simply don’t see the incongruity – just like incumbents (in business & politics) don’t see the disruptive innovation creeping up on them. They don’t see the logical, or theological, conflict in their view of ‘rights’ of some vs. rights of homosexuals or women. And I don’t think this is conservative or liberal…it’s parochial. In full disclosure, I am a Christian Jew who believes in a Just G-d – can’t find any references to His being ‘fair’, but lots to His being Just.

  2. I thought that the two often conflicting goals had been discussed a lot during the rise of communism, and that the Western conclusion to this debate was that conditions that led to individual fulfillment actually result in the maximum betterment of humanity, because to allow the best and brightest to succeed tends to bring everyone up along with them, while attempting to impose maximum betterment for the group stifled great minds and resulted in mediocrity.

  3. The dilemma of the commons – what is wise at an individual scale is unwise on a collective scale.

    If your answer doesn’t meet the problem then you won’t get a solution.

    From the other side of the planet it seems like the Tea Party comes from a different planet. From here it looks like the Republicans de-regulated the banks, the banks raped the American economy (causing 10%+ unemployment and a million-plus home foreclosures), yet the Tea Party seems to think the basic problem is the current president is a Kenyian-born Muslim socialist, and the answer (for a “libertarian” movement!) is government intrusion into every bedroom.

    Tea Party reasoning is so riddled with factual mis-information and contradictory concepts it defies understanding. In the unlikely event that its economic, scientific, and social policies were enacted they could only accelerate the decline of America as a world power.

  4. Thanks very much for the very thoughtful comments.

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