Skip to main content

Why has America elected a president adapted to a Stone Age way of life?

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | November 9, 2016

There are a lot of unhappy, surprised people in Berkeley today. I am in the minority who are deeply unhappy but in no way surprised.

The interpretation we make of yesterday’s events depends upon the paradigm we adopt for understanding human nature. The majority of my colleagues are still influence by the 19th century standard social-science model going back to Emile Durkheim. “Collective representations, emotions and tendencies are caused not by certain states of the consciousness of individuals but by the conditions in which the social group, in its totality, is placed.”  It is a paradigm that totally fails to provide insight into the election results

Stone Age humans

Stone Age humans

Over the past half-century the standard social-science model has been challenged by a dazzling, informative and continually rewarding series of testable scientific insights generated by evolutionary psychologists. Evolutionary psychology posits that the human mind is a set of information-processing mechanisms that, like the rest of evolution, have changed slowly over time. We are not robots, but we are subject to certain universal predispositions related to survival, access to resources and reproduction.

While my standard social-science colleagues often emphasize the plasticity of behavior — even seeing the human mind as a blank sheet —  my starting point is that human beings are competitive, extraordinarily violent creatures who evolved in hierarchical and patriarchal societies.

Trump is a narcissistic, lying, racist, misogynist. So why have over 50 million Americans in a free election voted him into office? Stone Age predispositions run deep. Every U.S. president, save two, has been of above average height. I don’t know of any correlation between height and making good decisions in tough situations, but in a Stone Age society a tall, physically strong leader was the best choice to defend your clan against attacks by its neighbors. Interestingly Trump is 6 foot 0.5 inches tall, but he likes to claim he is 6 foot 3.

One study of American college students found that one-third said they would rape a woman if they knew if they were certain they would never be prosecuted. This is a terrible statistic. But no doubt significant numbers of men secretly identified with Trump’s admission that he used his perceived status to grope women and engage in non-consensual kissing.

We are social animals evolved to lie. I suspect that many who voted for Trump envied his stellar ability to lie consistently and with conviction to tens of millions of people.

As Copernicus discovered, many people don’t like to change the paradigm they were taught. Much of the intellectual leadership in evolutionary psychology comes not from Berkeley, with its central position in the UC system, but from Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Donald Symons and others in UC Santa Barbara.

We don’t have to live out our Stone Age predispositions, but we won’t cure the social maladies that distress us, or elect the best leaders, unless we begin with the correct diagnoses. For what is worth, I place my copies of my favorite academic journals — Human Nature and Evolution and Human Nature  — in the Sheldon Margen Library in University Hall. If you want an evidence-based insight into the Nov.  8 debacle, glance at some copies.

I hope that when an FTE appointment arises in the social sciences, in public health or in anthropology that my colleagues will have the courage to encourage intellectual diversity and select an evolutionary psychologist. I suspect that there are some talented post-docs at UC Santa Barbara, We may need their insights as the new president of the United States makes an already dangerous world significantly more dangerous.

Comments to “Why has America elected a president adapted to a Stone Age way of life?

  1. Your conclusions are based on a false premise that Clinton was a better candidate. As a Gary Johnson supporter, I could vote for neither of the major party candidates because of their policies and platform.

    As flawed as Trump is Clinton was far worse. The media and political pundits try to make Trump supporters out as bigots, haters, old white people. But the truth is there was no other choice they could vote for. They were stuck between a power hungry self righteousness lying career politician and a narcissistic businessman. Had the Democrats chosen anyone else, that wasn’t associated with the Clinton machine, Trump would not be president.

    If you would get out and talk to middle class Americans you would see how truly disliked Clinton was/is.

    Also, the majority of Americans still believe the govt to be the problem not the solution. Hence why Trump’s dismantling of the govt rhetoric plays well with the populace.

  2. I was pleased to read this blog as I am three quarters of the way through your book ‘Sex and War’ and came to the same conclusions that you write about in this blog about why Trump was elected. I also finished your first book ‘Ever Since Adam and Eve – the evolution of human sexuality’ many years ago. So while the whole scenario of what happened with Trump is ‘surprising’ to some, I felt I had some kind of an explanation for this from your writings.

    I am an overseas academic and researched ‘organisational behaviour’ and ‘social knowledge’ for my PhD. I drew heavily on Ted Schatzki, a social philosopher at Kentucky, who speaks of the prevailing and persistent nature of social practices.

    The behaviours of ingroups and outgroups in organisational settings have always interested me and your paradigm at the very least offers an explanatory argument for what makes people do what they do, even though, as you are at pains to point out, we might be capable of rising above those evolutionary instincts. The evolutionary instinctual model does however at the very least attempt to explain drawing on primate evidence, the way people drive cars, the way individuals pick on those weaker than themselves,the way ‘elites’ treat those ‘lower’ down on the social scale than themselves etc. etc. With the rise in competition between individuals locally and globally, there seems to be increasing team aggression all round at micro and macro levels.

    I’m trying to get friends and colleagues to read your work – but fully understand why some people prefer other explanations. For me, even as a ‘sociologist’ the persistent and prevailing nature of practices where we humans keep acting in the same ways as we always have the evolutionary tendencies in our make up seems a credible way of understanding what is going on at a deeper level.

  3. I voted against Hillary (not because she is a woman) but because she:
    1. Failed to follow State Department Regulations
    2. Violated the Espionage Act
    3. Lied (while under oath) to Congress
    4. Is suspected of profiting from the (non-profit) Clinton Foundation

    Had someone like Margaret Thatcher been the Republican Presidential nominee I would have voted for her.

  4. Am I understanding you correctly? Are you saying that one reason people voted for Trump is because he’s over six feet tall? That deep down our “stone-age” predispositions make us want to be led by tall men (?). If that is so, what about Napoleon Bonaparte? He measured, it is believed, 1m 69cm or roughly 5ft 5in. Even in those days that was considered short, yet he had many followers, some of them went all the way to Moscow. What is it that he had that overcame these men’s (and yes, they were mostly men, although I’m sure he had female admirers also) “stone-age” predispositions to want to be led by a tall man? Or is he the exception that proves the rule?
    Perhaps he had what Max Weber called charisma. I’m sure who are familiar with him — having read Durkheim, it is very likely that you read Weber. I suggest, respectfully, that you read (or re-read) his writings on charisma and you will find that much applies to the Trump phenomenon.
    You mention a study of American college students (a reference would have been nice; I know it’s only a blog). Having been a practitioner and student of surveys, I have only one word: caution. One person’s evidence is another person’s biased data.
    You state: “many who voted for Trump envied his stellar ability to lie…” But do you not assume that those “many who voted for Trump” saw his “lies” as lies?
    I am sure evolutionary psychology has much to offer (and I have made a note of the authors you mention to remedy my ignorance) but I doubt that it will provide a cure for “social maladies” nor do I believe the “social sciences”, standard or otherwise, can do so either. When I was growing up, “social maladies” such as the absence of civil rights or the war in Vietnam were “cured” by people going down in the streets (agency) believing (social consciousness) that these were fundamentally evil. It is likely to be the same in the future.
    Sincerely, a sociologist (of sort) but not a social “scientist”

    • I don’t think you’re understanding him correctly. At least, not according to the reply you’ve given.

Comments are closed.