When taking a graduate course on evolutionary psychology a
few years ago, I thought a bit about the potential evolutionary bases of worldviews.
I was specifically interested in the opposition between humanistic and
normativistic perspectives posited by Silvan Tomkins Polarity Theory (more
information here
) that is encapsulated in the following quotation: “Is man the measure, an end in himself, an active, creative,
thinking, desiring, loving force in nature? Or must man realize himself, attain
his full stature only through struggle toward, participation in, conformity to
a norm, a measure, an ideal essence basically prior to and independent of man?”
(Tomkins, 1963).

Evolutionary
bases of of normativism and humanism

Drawing on Tomkins’ (1987) notion that “the major
dynamic of ideological differentiation and stratification arises from perceived
scarcity and the reliance upon violence to reduce such scarcity”, I suggested (in
my term paper) that conditions of resource scarcity should have fostered a
tough-minded climate where the strong and hostile could prove their worth by
contributing to resource provision, and those weak or vulnerable were met with
anger, contempt, and disgust. I suggested that humanism is to a greater extent rooted in the problem
of forming stable alliances with other persons and groups, which requires interpersonal
trust and empathy.


Because psychological traits co-evolve as entire “packages”
in response to particular adaptive contexts, it is reasonable to predict that
humanism and normativism co-vary with other psychological and physiological
traits that also help to solve the respective adaptive problems. Normativism may
have co-evolved with other traits that helped to solve the problem of resource
acquisition, such as aggressiveness, physical strength and formidability,
risk-taking, conscientiousness, persistence, and diligence—this should be true
at least among men, who are thought of as the primary resource providers in an
evolutionary context. Humanism may instead have co-evolved with traits such as
empathy, altruism, agreeableness, and concern for the welfare of individuals, which are crucial for social bonding.

Egalitarianism
and upper-body strength

Interestingly, a portion of the aforementioned
hypotheses have subsequently been tested. The results of twelve studies conducted in various
countries are reported in a recent paper by Michael Bang Petersen and Lasse
Lauritsen titled Upper-body strength and political egalitarianism:
Twelve conceptual replications
. Drawing on models of animal conflict
behavior, Petersen and Lauritsen suggest that attitudes related to resource
conflict (i.e., egalitarianism) should be related to upper-body strength among
males, which was crucial for the resolution of resource conflicts in our evolutionary
past. They argue that “formidable individuals and their allies would be more
likely to prevail in resource conflicts and needed to rely less on norms that
enforced sharing and equality within or between groups in order to prosper”.

The measures of upper-body strength employed include
both self-report measures and objective measures of formidability. The one
major limitation of these studies—and this is a major limitation—is that there was, as far as I understand it, no control
for significant environmental factors such as time spent in the gym, physical exercise
background, occupation, or use of performance enhancing drugs (although other
more indirectly relevant variables such as socioeconomic status and
unemployment experiences were taken into consideration). Nevertheless, it is
interesting to note that the authors find a clear relationship among men (but not
women) between physical formidability and social dominance orientation (which encompasses
egalitarianism) but not between formidability and right-wing authoritarianism.

Toward an
evolutionary understanding of worldviews?

In order to establish that there is genetic covariation (not just
covariation in general) between formidability and worldviews, future research
needs to do a better job controlling for crucial environmental influences
(recent studies have apparently started to do this). Behavioral genetics methods
can also be employed to more directly assess genetic covariation. In addition to
this, a broader range of worldview dimensions (e.g., normativism and humanism, which are correlated with authoritarianism and social dominance) and physiological predispositions
could easily be taken into consideration. Let us hope that this will indeed what will happen over the next years.