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The evolutionary foundations of worldviews

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.

Swedish associate professor of psychology blogging about research and theoretical issues. Web page: Contact:

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