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The Hunter-Gatherer Fitness Model of Political Ideology
Less competent hunters would have promoted egalitarianism as it would benefit them more than a hierarchical system.
Written by Windsor Swan.
The Hunter-Gatherer Fitness model proposes that an individual's political ideology is largely determined by their relative level of fitness in a hunter-gatherer environment. One’s ability to survive and thrive in a hunter-gatherer society is a leading factor behind their political preferences. This link is an adaptation to group survival in a resource-scarce world, and is an unconscious motivator in voting decisions and political activism.
Humans primarily evolved in our ancestral environment, characterized by hunting and gathering activities. This was the predominant way of life for over 95% of our evolutionary history, spanning over 2 million years. During this period, humans lived in small groups and had to rely on their physical and cognitive abilities to hunt and gather food. As a result, our anatomy, physiology, and behavior have been shaped by this environment, and we are better suited to perform tasks relevant to our hunter-gatherer ancestors (Lieberman, 2015).
Hunter-gatherer fitness incorporates the main traits that determine survival and reproductive success for a hunter-gatherer. These typically include physical characteristics, immune health and spatial intelligence. Physical traits and spatial intelligence assist with hunting and fighting. Immune health was an extremely important aspect of ancestral living, allowing us to resist parasitic diseases and infections.
Our extended hunter-gatherer history has left imprints on our genealogy that have not adapted to modern technology, modern medicine and our new resource-abundant environment. This can explain why many modern diseases are associated with lifestyles that deviate from the ancestral norm (Cordain et al., 2005). This article explores the links between a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and political ideology. Evolutionary psychology is used to explore our cognitive inclinations and prejudices, as well as individual life strategies that relate to political preferences.
Liberal vs Conservative
Using the non-political definitions, the word liberal means generous and the word conservative means cautious. In the political sense, however, liberalism is primarily defined by the sharing of resources. This is known as egalitarianism, socialism, collectivism, or communism. It is founded on the principle of equality, with everyone entitled to equal amounts. On the other hand, conservatism is primarily defined by the conservation of resources, with an emphasis on hierarchy over equality, and a focus on economic or sparing behaviors to maximize resources (Davidai & Ongis, 2019).
Throughout this article, the terms liberal and conservative are used synonymously with left and right-wing. These concepts represent the two sides of the political spectrum and are inherent to any group-oriented organism. All political issues revolve around the balance between equality and hierarchy, leading to the prevalence and universality of the two-party system. In this system, each party favors one side more than the other, while not necessarily representing the extreme end of the spectrum. Thus, understanding the tension between equality and hierarchy is crucial in comprehending political dynamics and decision-making processes.
There are factors affecting political affiliation which seem to have no direct connection to our modern environment. Despite the prevailing notion that political psychology is rooted in economics, many other traits shape political views. The factors listed below have an equally strong - if not stronger - effect on political leaning than economic status, upbringing, or geographical location.
Upper body strength is strongly associated with support for inequality (Price et al., 2011; Petersen & Lausten, 2018).
Among American males, Republican voters consider themselves more masculine than Democrat voters by a significant margin. For females, 55% of conservatives view femininity as important, compared to 39% of liberals (Cox et al., 2022).
US Female conservative politicians were also found to be more feminine than female liberal politicians (Carpinella & Johnson, 2013; Hehman et al., 2014).
Peer-rated attractiveness and self-perceived attractiveness has a strong correlation with support for inequality (Berggren et al., 2010; Belmi & Neale, 2014).
Injecting testosterone causes Democrats to shift toward conservatism (Zak, 2021)
Strength and masculinity were adaptive for males in a hunter-gatherer setting (Laland & Brown, 2011), while the same is true with femininity for females (Hrdy, 1999). Facial attractiveness is largely a reflection of immune health (Thornhill & Gangestad, 1993), which was also adaptive. Infectious disease has been the leading cause of death throughout recorded human history, and probably before recorded history. Infectious diseases accounted for 8.5 million deaths as recently as 2016 (Mengelkoch, 2022).
Vaccine hesitation is linked to immune health. Those less likely to vaccinate perceive themselves as healthier and diseases as less dangerous (Truong et al., 2022). Older people are more likely to vaccinate, while younger people have stronger immune systems. Males are more likely to vaccinate, while females have stronger immune systems (Klein & Flanagan, 2016). Conservatives are less likely to vaccinate and are less concerned with disease than liberals (Conway et al., 2021). These connections suggest that conservatives are healthier and more attractive than liberals, on average.
Physical attractiveness is more important for female reproductive success than it is for males, who filled more of a provider role. However, both sexes rate physical attractiveness as significantly more important than income when choosing a mate (Jokela, 2009, Whyte et al, 2021 and Ha et al, 2010). This casts doubt upon the commonly held belief that wealthier people vote conservative.
Research has found a soft connection between income and political ideology that supports this belief (Arunachalam & Watson, 2016). However, it is well established that income has a robust association with intelligence. Yet there is little to no difference between liberals and conservatives in intelligence (Kirkegaard, 2023). If there is a difference, liberals may have the advantage (Carl, 2014).
The HG fitness model posits that any association between income and conservatism may be due to aging. People tend to become more conservative as they age (Geys et al., 2022; Tilley, 2015). People also tend to become wealthier as they age. Therefore, the connection between wealth and conservatism may be due to factors that accompany aging.
The HG fitness model posits that fitness levels are relative to the population, rather than in absolute terms. This means that 50% of the population will have lower fitness levels than the other 50%, with each side generally voting for their representative liberal or conservative party, with some variation.
Furthermore, fitness levels should be compared to others in the same age and situation bracket. Parenting and owning land generally come with aging, causing a shift towards conservative values. These events require the individual to concern themselves with the strength of the tribe (so as not to be conquered), rather than a fair distribution of resources (Kerry & Murray, 2018).
Redistribution as a liberal tactic
Hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian than agricultural societies (Henrich et al., 2015). However, hierarchy is a universal feature of human societies, and even ostensibly egalitarian societies have underlying hierarchical structures that govern social relationships (Boehm, 1999).
Among hunter-gatherers, an individual's ability to contribute to the group's survival played a crucial role in determining their status. Better hunters could attract healthier mates (Gurven, 2009). Since resource acquisition was a top priority, intergroup dynamics would have been largely based on ecological competence. Individuals tend to associate with those who are genetically similar and like-minded (Youyou et al., 2017; Curry & Dunbar, 2013). It is suggested that successful hunters formed cliques and kinship ties through marriage alliances.
Hunter-gatherer groups may have had to periodically disband due to limited resources in their environment (Reser, 2011; Smith & Codding, 2021). Studies have shown that hunter-gatherers adjusted the size and organization of their groups according to the availability of resources (Hamilton et al., 2007).
In rhesus monkeys, subordinate individuals are more likely to be the founders of new groups (Chepko-Sade & Sade, 1979). Additionally, hunter-gatherer group fissions typically occur along kinship lines (Salzano, 2009). A resource-stressed group may have forced lower-status families or single males to leave.
The HG fitness model argues that less competent hunters would have promoted egalitarianism as it would benefit them more than a hierarchical system. Rather than allowing the strongest hunters to hoard food, they advocated for the redistribution of resources. Additionally, successful females would have supported the conservation of resources for their own family.
Socialising as a liberal tactic
Simon Baron Cohen developed the Empathising-Systemising (E-S) spectrum as a tool to study autism. Individuals can be categorized somewhere along the E-S spectrum, but the labels of systemizing and empathizing are actually reflective of a deeper, more fundamental aspect of human nature.
Humans exhibit life strategies that rely on their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. The HG fitness model suggests that stronger individuals rely more on exploiting their natural environment, while weaker individuals rely more on exploiting their social environment.
Those who lean towards exploiting the physical environment tend to have a high hunter-gatherer fitness level, focusing on individual skills and self-sufficiency. To extract resources from their natural surroundings, they rely on physical prowess, logical thinking, systemizing, and truth-seeking.
Conversely, those who lean towards the socializing side have low hunter-gatherer fitness; prioritizing status, reputation, and social cognition. Relying on the social environment requires forming alliances, espousing collectivist principles, and attracting high-quality mates to provide food (Vigil, 2010).
Furthermore, those with a low fitness level are more likely to possess traits that make them psychologically formidable (Kozlowska, 2023). This includes the ability to deceive, read emotions, and excel in verbal communication. Those with low fitness who did not possess these traits would have died out.
Females tend towards a socializing strategy, while males tend towards an externally-directed exploitation strategy. The HG fitness model suggests that liberals tend toward socializing, while conservatives tend toward physical exploitation. This pattern is reflected in many traits related to the hunter-gatherer fitness model.
Self-deception as a liberal tactic
Robert Trivers' theory of deception suggests that self-deception can be adaptive in certain social situations because it helps individuals deceive others more effectively. By convincing oneself of a false belief, one can more effectively convince others of that false belief, which can be advantageous in social interactions (Trivers, 2011).
Under the same principle, cognitive biases can serve an adaptive function by boosting self-esteem (Humberg et al., 2019). This is evident in biases such as confirmation bias, self-serving bias, false consensus effect, bias blind spot, optimism bias, positive memory effect, hindsight bias, tall poppy syndrome, and illusory superiority.
Less obvious examples work in the same way. The sunk cost fallacy is the continued investment of resources based on previous investment rather than projected return. This can be a form of self-deception because it allows the person to justify their past decisions and maintain a positive self-image, even if the rational thing to do would be to cut their losses and move on.
While these biases are unrealistic and unobjective, they can be adaptive in certain social contexts, as they help less capable individuals maintain social standing and group membership. This is crucial for survival in a hunter-gatherer setting, where exclusion from the group could have fatal consequences.
Conservatives are more rational and less emotional than liberals (Choi et al., 2022; Pliskin et al., 2014). Workers in STEM tend to display more conservative political leanings than those in other industries (Davidson, 2016), which may be attributed to the emphasis on logical reasoning within these fields.
Males are more rational than females, while also being more conservative. Intelligence also correlates strongly with rationality (Stanovich et al., 2016). The HG fitness model posits that rationality is correlated with spatial intelligence, and relates to exploiting the natural environment.
Despite the importance of logic in decision-making processes, political beliefs are often resistant to change even in the face of compelling evidence or fact-checking (Barrera et al., 2017; Bolsen et al., 2015; Gampa et al., 2019; Walter et al., 2020; Kahan, 2023). This is not to say that both sides ignore logic in their political attitudes, only that at least one side does.
The HG fitness model suggests that political affiliations are often driven by personal interests rather than a sincere desire to determine the most effective systems for society. Political preference inevitably matches the system which best suits the individual.
This means that while liberalism is defined by equality, it is fundamentally a tool for self-interest. Thus, while the message may be egalitarian in nature, the outcome is not always strictly related to equality. If they can take more than their fair share, they will.
Spatial ability is understanding the properties of the physical realm. It relates to movement, space and distance, vision and visualization. It predicts performance in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as in sport (Wai et al., 2009; Ozel et al., 2004). Males outperform females in spatial tasks (Moore & Johnson, 2008; Voyer et al., 1995).
It is a given that skilled hunters and fighters have a higher spatial IQ than average. However, high levels of spatial ability are usually accompanied by a higher IQ (Jensen, 1998). Since the proposition of the HG fitness model is that greater hunting skill leads to higher levels of conservatism, we should see a correlation between conservatism and overall IQ. As previously mentioned, this is not the case.
The reason is evolutionary. As IQ increases, overall muscularity tends to decrease. There is an inverse relationship between intelligence and size or brawn. The reason is that both these factors are metabolically expensive (Kuzawa et al., 2014; Isler & van Schaik, 2006; Griffin et al., 2003; Ferraro et al., 1992). Brains require extra fuel, as does muscle and bone mass.
Since we have not adapted to our current resource abundance, genes remain matched with other complementary genes in a hunter-gatherer setting. Thus, more intelligent individuals possess more slender facial features on average (Kleisner et al., 2014). As a result, an increase in spatial ability usually leads to a decrease in physical size and strength, and HG fitness levels are unaffected. Because of this relationship, conservatives do not possess greater intelligence than liberals on average.
According to the HG fitness model, verbal ability is favored more by those with weaker physical characteristics and poor spatial ability. In this sense, it can be employed as a compensatory mechanism for maintaining social status and group membership in an HG society.
Spatial ability directly impacts coordination but also has a non-causative correlation with size, male health, rationality, and mental stability. In contrast, verbal ability is connected to neuroticism, poor health, depression, and mental disorders (Geary & Baker, 2016; Wai et al., 2009; Jonsdottir, 2021; Margolis et al., 2018; Lerner et al., 2018; Rajagopal et al., 2023; Kyaga et al., 2013; Aoki et al., 2012).
Verbal ability may not be a true type of intelligence, but rather a learnable skill based on multiple factors. Results from the most popular IQ test show verbal scores peaking at age 50. In contrast, other index scores peak at age 20 (Wisdom et al., 2012).
Since the brain should be in optimal condition at age 20, verbal tests seem to be anomalous, and may not be a true reflection of cognitive ability. Rather than solely measuring verbal intelligence, verbal tests also account for memory and motivation.
Individuals with weaker HG fitness levels have a higher motivation for verbal learning and communication, and their scores may be higher than average. In this context, verbal ability became an important skill for individuals with greater reliance on group survival.
Male vs female politics
Male hunter-gatherer fitness largely relies on strength and spatial intelligence, with health having a moderate effect. Female hunter-gatherer fitness mostly relies on beauty (immune health and fertility), with spatial intelligence having a moderate effect. Females are more left-wing than males (Antinyan et al., 2021) since masculinity trumps femininity when it comes to achieving autonomy.
Females are also higher in conformity than males (Carl, 2023), leading some to suggest their support for liberalism is due to recent shifts in the Overton window. While women voted for conservative parties more than men until the 1970s, these gender differences are no longer prevalent in many advanced industrialized democracies (Abendschon & Steinmetz, 2014).
However, female preference may be based on greater inherent prosocial values (Lizotte, 2020; Hersh et al., 2018). Furthermore, the ancient Greek comedy play ‘Assemblywomen’ implies that the male-female political divide goes back to antiquity.
Thus, this past conservative preference may be down to low turnout rates, higher marriage rates, and higher numbers of children. The fact that marriage shifts women to the right (Kotkin & Abrams, 2023) supports the HG fitness model, as females with a personal provider don’t require the redistribution of resources at the group level.
It is commonly recognized that females are more social than males, who prefer visual and physical based activities. The HG fitness model suggests that stronger males are even less communicative than weaker males, in line with the “strong and silent” stereotype.
Autism spectrum disorder is a condition that can be described as an extreme male profile. According to Swan (2023), people diagnosed with ASD are:
Unconcerned with reputation
Solitary foragers (high HGF level)
The HG fitness model suggests that individuals with ASD lean towards conservatism to a greater extent than the average male. While more research is needed, there may be some evidence for this.
Conservatives focus more on aversive stimuli, while liberals focus more on appetitive stimuli (Dodd et al, 2012). This is because conservatives are concerned with not losing their resources, while liberals are focused on gaining the resources of others. Furthermore, conservatives have a greater disgust response than liberals (Elad-Strenger et al, 2020), which can be attributed to their greater health.
High scores in aversive behavior also correlate with an autistic spectrum disorder. People with a diagnosis also suffer increased perceptions of threat and sensations of disgust compared to the average (Jahme, 2012).
Political topics according to the HG fitness model
Immigration is a liberal policy that provides a buffer between liberals and tribal exclusion. It also disrupts group cohesion, allowing those with greater social skills to benefit from the disorder.
Welfare is redistributionist in principle and a staple liberal policy. Besides unemployment support, welfare also includes disability support, universal healthcare, and affirmative action.
Censorship is a useful tool for social manipulation. Given the liberal tendency toward socializing, censorship is usually applied by the left, while conservatives favor free speech.
Feminism is a liberal policy designed to suppress masculine traits that reduce the likelihood of redistribution. Feminism and LGBT support are further examples of disruptions to social cohesion.
A state monopoly on violence is beneficial for liberals who have lower strength and testosterone.
Capital punishment is favored by conservatives as masculinity is associated with higher levels of vengefulness (Cota-McKinley et al., 2001). Weaker individuals are more forgiving as a necessity - they are less capable of providing punishment in a hunter-gatherer environment.
Rural areas are more conservative, while urban areas are more liberal. Those with higher levels of hunter-gatherer fitness are drawn to rural areas, as these places reward skills that reflect hunter-gatherer practices, such as manual laboring and family bonding.
Conservatives favor guns because they are tools that require masculine skills. Used for hunting and fighting, they increase self-sufficiency while countering any state monopoly on violence.
Modern art is recognized as having liberal inspirations (Brooks, 2014; Holler, 2007). The intention is to mock the values expressed in traditional art. These values are skill and beauty, which relate to higher levels of hunter-gatherer fitness. By subverting these values, the aim is to lower the status of individuals who possess these traits, thus raising their own status in comparison.
Conservatives exhibit higher levels of health, beauty, fertility, strength, size, testosterone, and spatial intelligence, while liberals excel in social skills and verbal intelligence. Higher trait intensities should correlate with more extreme political attitudes, with exceptions of course.
These characteristics are quantifiable and can be measured with ease. Facial recognition technology can already predict an individual's political orientation with 72% accuracy (Kosinski, 2021). Incorporating these traits into the latest neural network models should increase the accuracy to above 90%.
The hunter-gatherer fitness model represents the most recent paradigm for comprehending the psychology underlying political preference. This model offers a more comprehensive understanding than previous theories while satisfying the scientific principle of parsimony.
Windsor Swan is an amateur researcher. His substack Breaking New Ground provides new theories on political psychology, history and economics. He is also the creator of a new IQ testing platform that uses innovative features for improved psychometric evaluations. Use the code BNG100 for free access to each test.
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